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UK reveals plan to stop asylum-seekers in small boats

March 7, 2023

The UK has outlined plans that officials say will stop asylum-seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats. Critics say people are only making the perilous journey because there are too few safe legal routes.

 A group of more than 40 migrants react as they succeeded to get on an inflatable dinghy
More than 45,000 people arrived by small boats on England's south coast last yearImage: Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

The British government on Tuesday announced a new law barring the entry of asylum-seekers who cross the English Channel in small boats.

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the legislation "pushed the boundary of international law" after the number of migrants arriving on England's south coast rose to more than 45,000 last year.

What does the new law mean?

The legislation means that most people who arrive on small vessels, rather than by official means, will not be allowed to claim asylum in Britain.

Instead, they could be detained without bail or judicial review for 28 days before being deported, either to their home country or a safe third country.

The home secretary, the UK's interior minister, would have a legal duty to remove the cross-Channel migrants.

Only children, people who are medically unfit to travel and those at a "real risk of serious and irreversible harm” would be allowed to stay and have their claims processed in Britain.

Otherwise, their case would be decided remotely after removal. The legislation would also disqualify migrants from using modern slavery laws to challenge removal by claiming they are the victims of human trafficking.

At the end of 2022, government figures showed that more than 160,000 people were waiting to have their asylum claims considered.

The UK: Hunting down migrants

Though the UK's asylum system is slow, about two-thirds of people who arrive on small boats and have their cases examined are deemed genuine refugees.

Braverman said she could not make a definitive statement that the plans were compatible with the Human Rights Act. However, she said she was "confident that this bill is compatible with international obligations."

"If you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed," Braverman said.

Risk of worsening chaos, says opposition

The opposition Labour Party's shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, accused the government of "ramping up the rhetoric on refugees" while failing to solve the "deeply damaging chaos" in Britain's asylum system.

"This bill isn't a solution," Cooper said. "It is a con that risks making the chaos even worse."

According to the Refugee Council charity, the law means that tens of thousands of genuine refugees would be "locked up like criminals." It said the new rules are unworkable and would "shatter" Britain's UN Refugee Convention commitments.

Charities say migrants risk the dangerous crossing because there are not enough safe and legal ways to enter the UK as an asylum-seeker.

"No one wants to see families continue to risk their lives crossing the freezing channel in small boats," said Katy Chakrabortty, of charity Oxfam GB. "But, instead of implementing this cruel bill, the UK should provide more safe and legal routes for people needing protection."

The British government has said it will establish more legal routes to asylum once the laws to stop the boat traffic are in place, adding to those established for people from Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Ukraine .

It has not said when any new programs might begin and how many people would be accepted. It is also unclear what safe third countries might be willing to accept the migrants.

A planned policy to deport new arrivals to Rwanda is being challenged in the courts and, so far, no migrant has been flown to the country.

rc/ar (Reuters, AFP)