Home secretary Priti Patel delivered a statement to Parliament on Wednesday, setting out a “fair but firm” overhaul of how individuals seeking asylum in the UK will be treated.
Under Patel’s proposals, people seeking refugee status in the UK will be assessed on the way they arrive in the country, meaning that those who enter the UK illegally to claim asylum will not be privy to the same entitlements as those who come to the country legally.
Patel told MPs that a “faster and fairer” way of processing asylum seekers would be introduced to help the government re-establish control and “better support the most vulnerable”. She also commented that “organised criminal gangs” were exploiting people looking to come to the UK.
Patel said: “Families and young children have lost their lives at sea, in lorries and in shipping containers having put their trust in the hands of criminals.
“The way to stop these deaths is to stop the trade in people that causes them.”
Patel added that the new system will create “safe and legal routes” for those seeking asylum to come to the UK, while emphasising that people fleeing dangerous countries should rather be claiming asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, rather than trying to proceed to Britain’s shores.
During the year ending March 2020, 35,099 asylum claims were made in the UK, with the majority of applicants coming from Albania, Iran and Iraq.
Patel continued: “If you illegally enter the UK via a safe country in which you could have claimed asylum, you are not seeking refuge from imminent peril, as is the intended purpose of the asylum system, but are picking the UK as a preferred destination over others.
“We have a generous asylum system that offers protection to the most vulnerable via defined legal routes. But this system is collapsing under the pressures of what are in effect parallel illegal routes to asylum, facilitated by criminals smuggling people into the UK.”
The Home Office has said that under the proposals, any rejected asylum applicants could be subject to “rapid removal from the UK”, while appeals will be “reformed” to “speed up” system processes.
However, it added that any asylum seekers coming to the UK via the “legal resettlement” route from war-afflicted countries such as Syria would be given indefinite permission to remain. Any who enter the country illegally, on the other hand, notably via help from criminal groups, will only ever be granted temporary right to remain and will regularly be assessed for removal.
The proposals also reference “rigorous” age checks to prevent adults pretending to be children from entering the country. Hotels will also no longer be used to temporarily accommodate any new arrivals.
Patel also told the Commons that any asylum applicants with criminal records who return to the UK after being deported will face a jail sentence of up to five years, while anyone involved in smuggling people into the country could face life in prison.
Human rights lawyers have criticised Patel’s plans as unlawful for overlooking the UK’s international commitments under the Refugee Convention, but the home secretary argued that bogus asylum claims and legal battles had “clogged up” the existing system.
The Labour Party also opposed the plans, calling them a “lack of compassion” and said that they would do “next to nothing” to stop people making dangerous attempts to enter the country illegally.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The government policy is defined by a lack of compassion and a lack of competence, the plans risk baking into the UK system the callousness of this government's approach.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said that the government was attempting to “unjustly differentiate between the deserving and undeserving refugee” by discriminating against asylum seekers “based on how they travel to the UK”.