A bill which will make knowingly arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence has passed its latest parliamentary hurdle.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Nationality and Borders Bill will address the country’s “broken asylum system” and “break the business model” of people trafficking gangs facilitating illegal crossings into the UK.
The bill, which passed its second reading in the Commons on Tuesday evening by 366 votes to 265, will give Border Force officers the powers to turn back migrant boats attempting to cross the Channel from France and use “reasonable force, if necessary”.
Responding to the vote, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The Conservatives just voted to make it harder to give a safe haven to children fleeing violence and war. They should be ashamed.”
Prison sentences for those who enter the country without permission will increase from six months to four years and a maximum of life imprisonment for convicted people smugglers will be introduced under the legislation
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And, for the first time, the way an individual arrives in the UK – legally or illegally – will have a bearing on whether their asylum application is accepted.
The government hopes the post-Brexit overhaul of the asylum rules will deter migrants from attempting to cross the Channel.
And on Tuesday evening, the Home Office announced that Britain is to give France another £54 million to prevent crossings from happening following an agreement between Ms Patel and French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.
The number of French police officers patrolling northern beaches will be doubled and more technology will be used to target the smugglers, the department said, noting the changes will come into effect in the coming days.
It comes as data analysis by the PA news agency revealed that at least 8,452 people have crossed the English Channel in small boats this year, surpassing the total for all of 2020.
On Monday, more than 430 migrants sailed across the English Channel to the UK – a new single-day record, passing the previous daily high of 416 set in September last year.
Charities have described the bill as ‘anti-refugee’
The 87-page Nationality and Borders Bill also includes powers to allow claims to be processed outside the UK, potentially in offshore centres – something former prime minister Theresa May said she has “practical concerns” over.
Labour have said the legislation may break international law.
And a coalition of more than 250 refugee charities and campaign groups have criticised the bill and urged the government to rethink its approach, with one calling the legislation “extreme and nasty”.
Chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said the new bill risked preventing up to 9,000 people who have fled war and persecution from being given safety in the UK, despite being eligible under previous rules.
He described the legislation as the “anti-refugee bill” and accused the Home Office of “choosing to not only turn away those in need of safety but also treat them as criminals”.
The Home Office has insisted the changes will “prioritise those most in need of protection while stopping the abuse of the system”.
Labour says the legislation could ‘potentially break international law’
Over 36,000 people applied for asylum in the UK in 2020.
At the end of the year, there was a backlog of 109,000 cases being processed.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the responsibility for the “broken asylum system” lies on the Conservative Party’s shoulders.
“Yet despite these failings, the measures being proposed in this bill do not deal with the chaos they have created,” he said.
“They don’t deal with the fact that the time taken to process claims has rocketed or desperate people are still falling victim to criminal gangs.
“Instead, they will reduce support for victims of human trafficking, potentially break international law, and there are still no effective, meaningful proposals to deal with the increasing number of people risking their lives crossing the Channel.”
But Ms Patel maintained the government is listening and acting on what the British people want.
Priti Patel says the British people have ‘had enough’ of ‘uncontrolled immigration’
“The British people have had enough of open borders and uncontrolled migration,” the home secretary told the Commons.
“Enough of a failed asylum system that costs the taxpayer over a billion pounds a year, enough of dinghies arriving illegally on our shores, directed by organised crime gangs, enough of people drowning on these dangerous, illegal, and unnecessary journeys.
“Enough of people being trafficked and sold into modern slavery, enough of economic migrants pretending to be genuine refugees, enough of adults pretending to be children to claim asylum.
“Enough of people trying to gain entry illegally, ahead of those who play by the rules, enough of foreign criminals – including murderers and rapists – who abuse our laws and then game the system so we can’t remove them.
“The British people have had enough of being told none of these issues matter – enough of being told it is racist to even think about addressing public concerns and seeking to fix this failed system.
“The British people have repeatedly voted to take back control of our borders. They finally have a government that is listening to them.”