Migrants who come to the UK in small boats and hidden in lorries to claim asylum will no longer be charged with criminal offences, according to British prosecutors.
The new guidance comes in the week that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, submitted plans for a new, tougher borders regime aimed at cutting asylum claims and the £1 billion ($1.38bn) annual cost of administering the system.
Her proposals would have made it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission to be in the country, with jail terms of up to four years. The proposals were aimed at “sending a clear message to migrants thinking about making the dangerous and illegal journey”, according to the government.
The new guidance – in which charges would only be considered for people behind smuggling operations - will only apply in cases brought under existing laws, according to Ms Patel’s department, and will be reconsidered if new legislation is passed by parliament.
Passengers should only be prosecuted if they are repeat offenders and or have been previously deported. Those who fail in their asylum claims will be removed without criminal sanction.
Ms Patel’s plans to crack down on the asylum system have been criticised by campaigners, refugee groups and the United Nations.
A senior UN official said this week that the reforms were a near “neo-colonial” approach to shifting the burden of refugees to other countries.
The plans could lead to asylum processing centres outside of the UK – with Rwanda, Ascension Island and Gibraltar all having been flagged as potential options.
Gillian Triggs, assistant high commissioner for protection at the UN refugee agency, said the plans were aimed at avoiding responsibility for people fleeing persecution and shifting the responsibility to poorer countries.
“What we are finding is that Western, developed and wealthy countries are now not sharing responsibilities but shifting burdens to these poor countries”, she told a Chatham House webinar.
She said responsibility for asylum seekers was being passed to African countries while Britain, and other wealthy Western countries considering similar plans, washed their hands of the issue.
“You might pay a lot of money ... but nonetheless to shift the burden in that way without the safeguards is a problem”, she said.
Critics have said that attention should be given to speeding up the creaking asylum system and improving conditions for people who arrive in the UK.
Home Secretary Priti Patel says the UK will continue to resettle refugees and that it has protected 25,000 people in the last six years. But she has described the current system as “broken” because of delays and problems with removing people if their claims have failed.
Asylum applications in the UK hit a high of 84,000 in 2002 before falling to a 20-year low of 18,000 in 2010. The numbers rose to 36,000 in 2019, before falling back owing to the travel restrictions caused by coronavirus.
But the rise in the number of people crossing to the UK on overcrowded boats across the narrow waterway that divides the UK and northern Europe has led to demands from within the ruling Conservative party for tougher action on migration.
Ms Patel has struck a series of deals with France to try to limit the small boat flotillas, but a record number of about 6,000 people have attempted to cross already in 2021.
Ms Patel was in Albania this week to sign a deal that would let her to send back its nationals serving prison sentences in the UK. The deal would allow the UK to return inmates to serve their final year in Albanian jails, three months earlier than under current rules.