The UK government has outlined plans to toughen asylum rules designed to deter unauthorised migrant crossings from the continent by making it harder to make claims and easier to remove people.
The new scheme envisages speeding up the removal of failed asylum seekers, toughening sentences for people smugglers and those entering illegally, and increasing checks at sea. Controversially, it also seeks to stop would-be asylum-seekers from entering the system if they have already travelled through a "safe country" such as France.
The proposals have been slammed as "inhumane" by the Red Cross as claims would be judged according to how people entered the country. It is also unclear how failed claimants could be sent back without agreement from other countries now that the UK has left the EU.
Last year the UK received far asylum applications than other European countries such as France, Germany and Spain. However, there has been much media coverage and public outrage at the dangerous and sometimes fatal journeys across the English Channel, with migrants and refugees smuggled in small boats or in the back of lorries.
Britain's Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel told Parliament that the vast majority of asylum-seekers were young men. "We should ask ourselves, where are the vulnerable women and children that this system should exist to protect?" she said.
With 109,000 outstanding claims, 52,000 awaiting an initial decision, and almost three-quarters awaiting a year or more, the current system was overwhelmed, she added. Tougher checks are envisaged to catch adults claiming to be children.
"The persistent failure to enforce our immigration rules, with a system that is open to gaining by economic migrants and exploitation by criminals, is eroding public trust and disadvantaging vulnerable people who need our help," Patel said in the House of Commons.
The government had three "firm but fair objectives", the minister went on: to increase fairness to support those in genuine need, to deter illegal entry into UK and break the "business model" of people smugglers, and to remove more quickly those who had no right to be in the country.
Patel says asylum-seekers who arrive via organised, sponsored routes will have claims considered promptly, while others who arrive illegally will only be given temporary permission to stay, will receive limited benefits and will be regularly assessed for removal.
Refugee groups and immigration lawyers say the plan unfairly discriminates against refugees based on the way they got to the UK.
“The proposals effectively create an unfair two-tiered system, whereby someone’s case and the support they receive is judged on how they entered the country and not on their need for protection,” said Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross. “This is inhumane.”
Under the plans -- which have yet to be turned into legislation and approved by Parliament -- people smugglers risk up to life in prison.
But the main opposition Labour Party said the measures would do "practically nothing" to prevent people from attempting dangerous journeys to enter the UK.
Around 8,500 people entered Britain last year by crossing the Channel in small boats, according to UK government figures, and several died trying to make the journey.
Previous British governments have also made -- but failed to keep -- promises to speed up asylum decisions and quickly remove those who fail.
UK government figures say 35,099 people made asylum applications in the UK in the year to March 2020, with Iran, Albania and Iraq topping the list of countries they came from. The figure is about a third of the number of asylum applicants in Germany and less than half the total for Spain and France, according to EU figures covering the year to the end of 2020.
The British government has yet to strike agreements with EU countries on returning failed asylum seekers. Brexit means the EU's regulations, allowing member states in some circumstances to return asylum seekers to an EU country they passed through, no longer apply to the UK.