U.K. Will Allow Border Force to Return Migrant Boats to France

Britain’s Border Force will be given powers to seize people smugglers at sea and send migrants who’ve crossed the Channel back to France, in new legislation that puts Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a diplomatic collision course with President Emmanuel Macron.

Home Secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday published the Nationality and Borders Bill to deter people making the dangerous journey across the world’s busiest shipping area. The National Crime Agency says gangs are operating cut-price crossings by overcrowding small boats. Those who cannot afford the fees getting on kayaks and paddling pools, and some have even tried to swim the 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the narrowest part of the Channel.

Under the new legislation the U.K. Border Force can for the first time redirect vessels back to France or other continental ports. France and the U.K. have yet to agree the policy. A U.K. spokesman said there were no current plans for Johnson to take the issue up with Macron directly, with negotiations ongoing.

Under the Nationality and Borders Bill the U.K. will introduce:

  • A two-tier asylum system whereby those arriving legitimately will have a higher chance of their application being accepted
  • Plans for the Border Force to have the power to intercept and redirect boats to ports outside the U.K., including France, and to detain people smugglers and migrants and seize their vessels.
  • A provision to send asylum-seekers offshore for processing and create a new offense to lock up asylum seekers who arrive illegally, with a maximum jail term of four years. The maximum sentence for people smuggling will be lifted from 14 years to life
  • A one-stop shop that will require all applications to be made in full, with no last minute additions, but that will provide greater access to legal advice for asylum seekers
  • New legal powers for the Border Force to search unaccompanied containers at ports if they suspect illegal migrants are hidden in them
  • Scientific methods to determine people’s ages in order to stop migrants posing as children
  • A legal provision for applicants to act in “good faith.” Asylum seekers will not be able to claim sanctuary in the U.K. and another country at the same time

The plight, and persistence, of migrants was thrust in the spotlight in 2019 when 39 Vietnamese were found dead in a refrigerated container that had been shipped to the port of Purfleet in southeast England from Zeebrugge in Belgium. The numbers of people trying to get to Britain under the radar has only increased since then.

Around 62% of claimants who enter the asylum system in the U.K. have arrived illegally, according to the Home Office, and Patel wants to bring that number down by making the route between France and Britain “unviable.” She has accused “leftie-supporting lawyers” of exploiting the system to keep refugees and asylum seekers in the country.

Patel is an ardent supporter of the Brexit project designed to reduce migration from continental Europe. The new legislation will appeal to rank and file members of her own Conservative Party, as well as voters.

The opposition Labour Party’s Home Affairs spokesman Nick Thomas-Symonds said in an email that the measures “don’t deal with the fact that the time taken to process claims has rocketed or desperate people are still falling victim to criminal gangs.”

The new legislation will allow the U.K to grant more visas to countries which take back illegal migrants and reduce the number of visas or charge higher prices for papers to those nations which don’t.

The government is also in negotiation with other countries about hosting asylum processing centers, but has refused to confirm which nations and the status of the discussions.

Patel will face a battle explaining how the new legislation is compatible with the U.K.’s obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention -- currently upheld by the courts -- to grant migrants permission to stay even if they have traveled through other, safe countries.

Instead, under the plans, asylum applicants will have to show “just cause” for not applying in safe countries they have passed through first, such as Italy or France.

The Refugee Council said that “inadmissibility” rules to bar asylum seekers who arrive illegally mean 9,000 genuine asylum seekers would no longer be accepted into the U.K. Home Office officials, speaking under the usual custom of anonymity, say refugees from dangerous countries will be allowed to stay in the U.K. for 30 months to have their cases heard.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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