Borders Bill: Campaigners slam Priti Patel’s plan to extend jail time for refugees entering UK

Thousands of refugees could be turned away under new immigration laws that impose harsher penalties on people entering the UK

Home Secretary Priti Patel is introducing the Nationality & Borders Bill (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

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, introduced in government on 6 July, intends to make it a criminal offence for migrants to knowingly arrive in the UK without permission.

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It could mean the maximum sentence for those entering the country unlawfully would rise from six months’ imprisonment to four years.

‘Compassion needed, not cold-heartedness’

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council said: “For decades ordinary people have taken extraordinary measures to flee oppression - from those escaping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, torture in Zimbabwe or war in Syria - having to make dangerous journeys to reach safety in the UK.

“They have gone on to become law-abiding citizens playing by the rules and paying their taxes as proud Britons.”

The stricter rules under the bill are part of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s pledge to “fix” the UK’s “broken asylum system”.

The change will mean that police can jail entrants instead of taking them to a hotel or detention centre while their asylum is being processed.

Offshore immigration centre

The bill will also include a provision to create an offshore immigration processing centre for asylum seekers for the first time.

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.

Solomon added: “This government is cruelly choosing to not only turn away those in need of safety but also treat them as criminals.

“This anti-refugee bill will drive an already inefficient and ineffective system into disarray with even worse delays and far greater expense.

“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.”

The proposed laws also plans to increase the tariff for people smugglers, with those found guilty facing life behind bars – up from the current maximum of 14 years.

The Home Office has insisted the changes will “prioritise those most in need of protection while stopping the abuse of the system”.

More than 250 organisations – including the Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Freedom from Torture, Refugee Action and Asylum Matters – have joined to form the coalition Together with Refugees to call for a more effective, fair and humane approach to the UK’s asylum system.

Analysis of Home Office data by the Refugee Council found that, on average, 15,410 people were granted refugee status each year from 2015-2020.

It suggests 9,000 people who would be accepted as refugees under current rules may no longer be given safety in the UK due to their method of arrival under the reforms.

‘It’s time to act’

Patel said she hopes the bill will stop criminal gangs profiting from people smuggling.

She said: “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.

“This legislation delivers on what the British people have voted for time and time again - for the UK to take full control of its borders.

“It paves the way for a fair but firm system that will break the business model of the gangs that facilitate dangerous and illegal journeys to the UK while speeding up the removal of those with no right to be here.”The Home Office is also hoping to “strengthen” legal ways in which people can enter the UK, including through the new UK Resettlement Scheme which started in 2021.