U.K. Considering Requiring Migrants to Wait in Third Country While Asylum Claim Processed

The British government introduced legislation Tuesday that would allow it to send asylum seekers to other countries while their applications are processed or turn them back at sea. The measure is meant to curtail the numbers of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats to seek refuge in the U.K., the Associated Press reported.

The Nationality and Borders Bill would give the U.K. the authority to transfer migrants to a "safe third country," similar to Australia's island detention centers, while their claims are processed, although no countries have agreed yet to provide temporary refuge. Additionally, the bill would criminalize traveling to Britain without approval, punishable with a prison sentence of up to four years.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the proposed law would help mend the flawed asylum system as the U.K. contends with a growing influx of migrants. "For too long, our broken asylum system has lined the pockets of the vile criminal gangs who cheat the system. This isn't fair to the vulnerable people who need protection or the British public who pay for it. It's time to act," she said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

U.K. Migrants
The British government would have the power to turn asylum seekers back at sea or send them abroad while their claims are processed, under a proposed law. Above, Border Force officials guide newly arrived migrants to a holding facility after being picked up in a dinghy in the English Channel on June 24. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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.

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.

Priti Patel
British Home Secretary Priti Patel speaks during a media briefing on the coronavirus pandemic on January 21. Matt Dunham/AP Photo