Small boats of migrants making the dangerous journey across the Channel are to be forcibly turned around at sea by the UK’s Border Force and sent back to France under Priti Patel’s proposed asylum overhaul.
Campaigners have described the plans, which would need to be agreed by France in order to be implemented, as both illegal and “morally wrong”.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, laid in Parliament on Tuesday, would enable immigration officers to intercept vessels in British waters and take them to foreign ports – a controversial practice known as “pushback”.
It also paves the way for the Home Office to effectively punish countries that refuse to take back their own citizens with a new “power to control visa availability” for legal entrants to the UK.
And it would make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission to be in the country, and to bring in tougher sentencing for people-smugglers – up to life imprisonment.
Pushbacks have been widely condemned when carried out elsewhere in Europe, with the UNHCR calling for a “halt” to the practice earlier this year, branding it “simply illegal”.
Labour has said it will oppose the bill, warning that it may break international law and that it fails to put forward effective proposals to deal with the increasing number of people risking their lives crossing the Channel.
The bill states that if they have “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence is being committed” on a small boat, immigration and enforcement officers may “stop” and/or “board” the vessel and “require [it] to be taken to any place in the UK or elsewhere and detained there”.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty International UK, condemned the proposals, saying pushbacks were “disdainful of international law and dangerous for the people subjected to them”.
He added: “It is people’s right to seek asylum and there is no requirement for them to do that in any one country. Pushbacks deny them that right and will often only force them back to be once more exploited or extorted by smugglers, including on another unsafe crossing by sea.”
Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais, echoed his concerns, saying: “Pushbacks are horrifically dangerous – that’s why they’re illegal. Hearing that we as a country are considering this is deeply disturbing and morally wrong.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council said the use of pushbacks and “punitive criminal sanctions” in an attempt to make the Channel unviable for crossings from France was “ill-thought-out and destined to fail”.
The bill is designed to create the legal pathways for the Home Office to implement its New Plan for Immigration, announced in March this year. The department is yet to publish its response to a public consultation into the plans, which ended in May.
If passed, the bill will enable the Home Office to send asylum seekers overseas while their claims are processed, bearing hallmark similarities to the offshore polices introduced in Australia in 2013. Rwanda, Ascension Island and Gibraltar have been mooted as potential offshore locations.
Ministers will seek to deny permanent protection to any asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via unauthorised means – which accounts for more than six in 10 of those who have arrived in recent years – and instead attempt to remove them to a safe country that they have passed through.
However, to do this the Home Office will likely need to strike bilateral returns agreements with countries such as France, Germany and Belgium – all of which have confirmed to The Independent that they are not prepared to agree to such deals.
Under the proposals, individuals who cannot immediately be removed would be granted a temporary form of protection which would be subject to regular review, and under which they would have limited access to benefits and family reunion rights.
Ms Patel said she would “strengthen” safe and legal routes to the UK, though she has so far refused to introduce a numerical target for the UK’s resettlement scheme after scrapping its previous pledge of 5,000 refugees per year.
Other measures the Home Office plans to introduce as part of its asylum overhaul include:
• Introducing “fairer” and “faster” access to justice to help prevent the need for last-minute legal claims
• A new “one-stop” process to ensure that asylum, human rights claims and any other protection matters are made and considered together
• Changing how someone’s age is assessed to protect children from being wrongly identified as adults and stop adults falsely claiming to be children
Laying the bill in Parliament, Ms Patel said: “This legislation delivers on what the British people have voted for time and time again – for the UK to take full control of its borders.
“It paves the way for a fair but firm system that will break the business model of the gangs that facilitate dangerous and illegal journeys to the UK while speeding up the removal of those with no right to be here.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies