Border Force officers could be given powers to turn migrants away from the UK while at sea under laws proposed as part of sweeping reforms of the asylum system.
The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which was introduced to Parliament on Tuesday, also contains provisions to set up offshore processing centres and allow asylum seekers to be sent away from the UK while their claims are determined.
The legislation – dubbed the “anti-refugee Bill” by campaigners critical of the plans – intends to make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission, with the maximum sentence for those entering the country unlawfully rising from six months’ imprisonment to four years.
It means that, for the first time, how someone enters the UK – legally or “illegally” – will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful.
Convicted people-smugglers could also face life behind bars, up from the current maximum tariff of 14 years, under the proposals.
According to the papers setting out the proposals of the Bill, Border Force would be given the power to intervene at sea to tackle people-smugglers and turn migrant boats away from the UK but they would need the agreement of other states, like France, to drive them back into foreign waters.
The documents also suggest officers may be able to use “reasonable force, if necessary”.
The Bill includes clauses to allow the UK to be able to send asylum seekers to a “safe third country” and to submit claims at a “designated place” determined by the Secretary of State.
Although little detail is provided on this, officials believe the Bill gives the potential to allow for offshore processing centres to be set up overseas, akin to policies used in Australia.
This could give rise to reports that the UK is considering sharing a processing centre with Denmark in Rwanda and may even revive speculation over suggestions that Ascension Island could be sought as another destination.
The Home Office has refused to comment on the progress of any negotiations but talks with some countries are said to be ongoing.
Department policy documents previously published said changes to the law would “keep the option open, if required in the future, to develop the capacity for offshore asylum processing”.
The stricter rules are part of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s pledge to “fix” the UK’s “broken asylum system” and have been hailed by the Government as “fundamental reforms” under a “landmark” Bill as part of its “fair but firm” new plan for immigration first published in March.
The Home Office has insisted the most “radical” changes in decades will “prioritise those most in need of protection while stopping the abuse of the system”.
Tougher punishments are aimed at preventing “asylum shopping”, the department said, as it accused some migrants of “picking the UK as a preferred destination over others” when asylum could have been claimed earlier in their journey through Europe in another “safe” country.
But campaigners fear the plans will penalise those who need help the most, with some branding them as “cruel and counterproductive”.
The Bill’s unveiling comes as 18 migrants were found on a ferry in Dover, with nine taken to hospital as a precaution.
Records numbers of people made the perilous journey across the English Channel in small boats so far this year, with nearly 6,000 reaching the UK in the first six months of 2021.
The total figure for 2020 – 8,417 – could be eclipsed within two months if the number of crossings seen in July and August last year are repeated, according to analysis by the PA news agency.