LONDON — The British government proposed on Tuesday a plan to make it possible to transfer asylum-seekers out of the country while their applications are processed and to arrest those who arrive by boat across the English Channel, policies that rights groups say would violate international laws.
The plan, called the Nationality and Borders Bill, was brought forth by Priti Patel, the British home secretary, for a first reading in Parliament on Tuesday. It is the latest measure introduced by the government to “fix the broken asylum system,” as the Home Office described it in a statement.
Patel, in a statement before the bill’s introduction, said the bill “delivers on what the British people have voted for time and time again — for the U.K. to take full control of its borders.”
It includes proposals to create a criminal offense of entering the country illegally, would give authorities more scope to make arrests and would make it easier “to remove someone to a safe country while their asylum claim is processed,” the Home Office said.
The plan, if it were to go into effect, would place Britain in the company of Denmark, which recently passed a law allowing for the offshore detention of refugees, and Australia, which has already put in place similar measures. In adopting what until recent years had been considered a fringe approach to the issue, the British government seemingly reversed decades of global leadership in the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers.
The bill differentiates between refugees depending on how they journey to Britain, putting them in two distinct groups and basing their rights on their mode of arrival — either through resettlement or via irregular means, which would be treated as a criminal matter.
The bill also introduces the option for asylum-seekers to be moved to a third country while their applications are processed, but that would be contingent on international agreements that do not currently exist. Some fear that the plan could open the door for asylum-seekers to be held in detention centers abroad, where their rights and safety could be at risk.
Andy Hewett, head of advocacy for the Refugee Council, which works with refugees in Britain, said the idea that migrants who arrived by truck or boat were “somehow less genuine than refugees who arrived by resettlement, for example, is completely false.”
The refugee proposal already seems primed to emerge as the latest flashpoint in Britain’s simmering culture wars, stoked in large part by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Michelle Pace, a professor in global studies at Roskilde University in Denmark and an associate fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank, said, “From a purely legal position, there is no way that these plans can actually be implemented.”
She noted that any policy that involved the expulsion of asylum-seekers would violate the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia, Britain and Denmark are signatories.
“So the question that we have to ask is — in the case of the U.K. — who is Priti Patel really addressing here?” Pace said, noting the public pressure on a government that has increasingly taken an anti-immigration stance.
Critics of the Johnson government say it has made a practice of raising divisive cultural issues that it believes will translate into votes from the working-class voters it has drawn away from the opposition Labour Party in recent years — with Brexit being another prime example.
Frequently, apparently harsh or extreme measures have been leaked to the news media or introduced in Parliament with great fanfare, only to be forgotten, the critics say. In recent years, the government has proposed that voters be required to show photo identification, attacked the BBC’s financing model and called for 10-year prison sentences for vandalizing statues. None of these measures are currently close to being enacted into law.
Now, critics say, new immigration measures — at a time of falling immigration levels — are the next to be teed up.
“What is, in effect, the stance of this political gimmick, is that they’re trying to tell the general public, ‘We are doing something about this,’” Pace said.
More troublingly, she added, the moves were part of a broader shirking of international humanitarian obligations by established democracies that used to be defenders of those rights.
“I just fear that as a global community, we are really dehumanizing the lives of those that, at the end of the day, are people like me and you,” Pace said.
The Times of London reported last week that representatives from the Home Office had met with Danish officials about potential cooperation at a processing center abroad, possibly in Rwanda, although that report has not been independently verified.
Lawmakers from the Labour Party quickly denounced the plan announced Tuesday, with Nick Thomas-Symonds, who speaks for the party on domestic affairs, calling the measures “unconscionable.”
Advocates for refugee rights also condemned the proposals, saying that the bill was fundamentally at odds with the rights of asylum-seekers under international law and did little to address other problems in the asylum process, citing as examples the huge backlogs in applications and inhumane conditions at existing processing centers.
Pace said that she saw the recent push by Britain and Denmark for offshore asylum processing as part of a problematic policy shift and a worrying trend to target voters and appease those calling for a clampdown on migration — amounting, she said, to the “institutionalization of inhumanity.”
Australia’s use of offshore detention centers for asylum-seekers has long drawn condemnation, with reports of desperate living conditions and high rates of suicide among detainees, and critics say that some of the country’s practices contravene the Refugee Convention. But Australian authorities have defended the policies as a necessary step to deter irregular migration.
Rights advocates dismissed the British plan as an inhumane and unrealistic political ploy that failed to address the country’s obligations to protect asylum-seekers.
“It doesn’t adequately deal with any of the issues; it’s just more saber rattling from Priti Patel,” said Bridget Chapman, a spokeswoman for the Kent Refugee Action Network, a group in the southeastern part of England where many migrant boats that cross the English Channel from mainland Europe arrive.
Chapman said that Britain had “a shared responsibility” to accept people who were applying for asylum and should not rely on countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Mediterranean countries to hold them.
“We can’t outsource that to poorer countries; that’s an abdication of responsibility,” Chapman said. “They are not unmanageable numbers.”
The rising number of migrants and asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats has been a rallying cry for anti-immigrant groups.
But migration experts say that the number of those boat crossings — somewhere about 5,000, according to estimates from The Times of London and the BBC — signals a shift in migration routes, rather than a surge in total new arrivals. While boat arrivals were up in the past year, overall asylum applications were down, falling by 18% in 2020, compared with 2019.
Historically, migrants and asylum-seekers hid in the back of trucks and crossed from ports in northern France or elsewhere in Europe as the main routes of irregular entry, a much less visible phenomenon. Increased patrolling of freight traffic, particularly coming from the French port of Calais, and the shutdown of other forms of travel during the pandemic shifted smuggling routes to the boat crossings, experts say.
The Refugee Council recently released a report on the huge backlog in asylum application processing in Britain, despite the drop in new applicants. According to that study, the number of people waiting for more than a year for an initial decision has risen almost tenfold in the past decade, to 33,016 in 2020, from 3,588 in 2010.
Hewett said that measures introduced so far have failed to act as a deterrent, adding that his organization and other refugee advocates would like to see a shift toward establishing safe and legal routes for asylum-seekers to obtain humanitarian visas.
“Everything the government has done to date has failed, but they seem absolutely intent on following the same path,” Hewett said.
Longer term, the plan potentially sets a “dangerous precedent,” he said.
“What you could end up with is the majority of people fleeing persecution, being detained or housed in developing countries that don’t have the infrastructure,” Hewett said. “That really undermines our global refugee protection system and the principle of responsibility sharing.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.