LONDON (AP) — The British government plans to give itself powers to turn asylum-seekers back at sea or send them abroad while their applications for protection are processed, a move intended to deter migrants from making perilous journeys across the English Channel in small boats.

Legislation introduced in Parliament on Tuesday could pave the way for migrants to be held outside the U.K., a highly contentious idea modeled on Australia’s island detention centers.

If passed, the Nationality and Borders Bill would allow the U.K. to send asylum-seekers to a “safe third country” while their claims are considered. No country has yet agreed to host U.K.-bound migrants, however.

The bill also would make “knowingly” arriving in Britain without permission a crime punishable by up to four years in prison and give people who arrived by approved routes an advantage in having their applications reviewed.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the “fair but firm” legislation would help fix an ineffectual asylum system. Britain’s Conservative government is seeking ways to deter growing numbers of people — 6,000 so far this year — from reaching the U.K. by boat, sometimes with the help of people smugglers.

“For too long, our broken asylum system has lined the pockets of the vile criminal gangs who cheat the system,” Patel said. “This isn’t fair to the vulnerable people who need protection or the British public who pay for it. It’s time to act.”

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But activists who work on behalf of refugees said the proposed law would penalize people fleeing violence and persecution.

Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, said the legislation was “built on a deep lack of understanding of the reality of refugee migration.”

“We cannot divide refugees between good and bad depending on how they arrive, and shop around for where to deport those we want to keep out,” he said.

The government says Britain gave refugee status or other humanitarian protection to 20,000 people in the year to March 2020. The U.K. receives fewer asylum applications than continental European countries such as Germany, Spain and France.

Many refugees arrive through approved routes, but migrants have long used northern France as a launching point to reach Britain, traveling either in trucks through the Channel Tunnel or on ferries.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the U.K.’s strong economy and need for farm and restaurant workers drew migrants from around the world who could speak some English. When the pandemic struck, many turned to small boats organized by smugglers after lockdowns reduced opportunities to stow away on ferries and trucks.

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To stop people from arriving, the government previously appointed a former Royal Marine commando as “clandestine Channel threat commander.” Critics say such efforts are at best ineffective and at worst inhumane.

Britain’s High Court ruled earlier this month that officials broke the law when they housed asylum-seekers in overcrowded, rundown conditions in a disused army barracks during the pandemic.

To become law, the new bill must be approved by lawmakers in Parliament, where the governing Conservatives have a large majority.

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