British ministers unveiled plans on Tuesday to give border officials new powers to arrest and turn away migrants who make perilous small boat crossings to the UK.
The new law to be considered by Parliament on Tuesday would clear the way for offshore processing centres and make arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is aimed at reducing the number of people who arrive by small boats from northern Europe, but the proposed legislation has been strongly criticised by migrant charities and rights groups.
They claim that more than 9,000 refugees would no longer be given safety in the UK, and critics fear it would further tarnish Britain’s reputation as a destination for people fleeing repression.
Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel said the measures were aimed at tackling people smugglers who charge migrants thousands of pounds for a place on small boats to cross one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The bill is aimed at "sending a clear message to migrants thinking about making the dangerous and illegal journey", her department said.
Ms Patel said border officials told her at the weekend of a family who was divided at gunpoint with the parents being forced on to one boat, while their two daughters were left on the beach.
“Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers”, she wrote in the Daily Mail.
She said the new laws would increase the scope of border officials to make more arrests, increase prison sentences, and differentiate asylum applications, depending on how claimants arrive in the UK.
It will also make it easier for officials to remove migrants from the country, she said, and to limit last-minute appeals.
Ms Patel and her predecessor Sajid Javid have both come under fire for their failure to reduce numbers travelling to Britain in small boats, despite increasing patrols and striking deals with France to try to halt the crossings.
More than 6,000 people have travelled to the UK so far this year on small boats, the highest number on record.
Experts say criminal gangs have switched some of their resources from lorry-based smuggling to small boats because of tighter security at French ports and reduced traffic amid the coronavirus crisis.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the planned new law would increase delays in processing asylum claims.
The Council estimates that the number of people waiting for more than a year for an asylum decision has increased more than tenfold in a decade, from 3,588 people in 2010 to 33,016 in 2020.
Mr Solomon said the new law could criminalise people who are genuine refugees and see them sent to prison for up to four years.
“Today this government is cruelly choosing to not only turn away those in need of safety but also treat them as criminals”, he said.
“We need a system that gives everyone a fair hearing, protects those who need protecting and enables those to return who don’t. Competence, compassion and control are needed instead of cruelty, cold-heartedness and ineptitude.”