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U.K. plan to cut asylum seeker "illegal arrivals" draws U.N. rebuke as critics call it "morally repugnant"

London — The U.K. government has proposed new legislation aimed at stopping migrants and asylum-seekers from entering the country without prior permission. The bill introduced Tuesday by the government in the House of Commons has been called "profoundly concerning" by the United Nations refugee agency and "morally bankrupt" by opposition lawmakers.

If passed, the legislation would mandate the deportation of migrants or asylum-seekers who enter the U.K. irregularly, such as on small boats across the English Channel from France, and ban them from returning to the country or applying for British citizenship. 

Alongside the legislation, U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman included a letter saying there was more than a 50% chance that the law would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which the U.K. signed in 1951, CBS News partner network BBC News reported.

Migration Britain
Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman listens as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the launch of new legislation on migrant channel crossings at Downing Street, London, March 7, 2023. Leon Neal/AP

"For a government not to respond to waves of illegal arrivals breaching our borders would be to betray the will of the people we are elected to serve," Braverman said Tuesday. "Unless we act today, the problem will be worse tomorrow."

There has been a massive increase in boat crossings to the U.K.over the past five years. In 2018, there were 300 reported boat crossings, while in 2022, some 45,000 of the risky crossings were reported, according to the BBC.

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Critics say the government's plans are unworkable, do not respect international obligations toward refugees, and fail to address problems in the existing asylum system, including extremely long processing times.

Caroline Lucas, a member of Parliament from the Green Party, described the bill as "morally repugnant" and said alternative legal routes to claiming asylum in the U.K. "barely exist" or "don't function."

The executive director of the refugee charity International Rescue Committee UK, Laura Kyrke-Smith, said there was "not a shred of compassion for the people at the heart of this Bill," adding that there were more effective and compassionate alternatives.

"First, expand safe routes for those who need them," Kyrke-Smith said. "Second, fix the asylum system to ensure that claims are heard fairly and decisions are made quickly. Third, double down on diplomatic and humanitarian engagement to alleviate the crises that cause people to flee in the first place."

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, also spoke out against the bill Tuesday, saying it was "profoundly concerned."

"The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban — extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances," UNHCR said. "The effect of the bill (in this form) would be to deny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case. This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud."

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UNHCR said the U.K. Home Office's own data showed the majority of people who make it into the country on small boats would be accepted as refugees under its own policies if their claims were processed.

"Branding refugees as undeserving based on mode of arrival distorts these fundamental facts," UNHCR said, urging the U.K. government "to reconsider the Bill and instead pursue more humane and practical policy solutions."

Prominent British sports commentator and TV personality Gary Lineker drew a backlash Wednesday after comparing the language in the bill to that of Nazi-era Germany.

"There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s," Lineker said in a tweet.

While he doesn't work in its news department, Lineker's long-time position at the publicly-funded BBC brought scrutiny on his comments as a potential violation of the organization's impartiality guidelines.

He thanked his supporters on Wednesday and said he would "continue to try and speak up for those poor souls that have no voice."

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