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Proposed U.K. law could see asylum seekers jailed for up to 4 years

London — The British government has introduced a bill that would allow authorities to criminally prosecute and jail asylum seekers who are intercepted trying to enter the United Kingdom without permission for up to five years. The proposed legislation would also limit the rights and protections currently afforded to people who claim asylum after entering the U.K. "without valid entry clearance."

Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, which has not yet been passed into law, if a person arrives in the U.K. using a regulated route — having obtained a travel visa for instance — and then claims asylum, they would still go through the normal U.K. refugee process and, if successful, gain the right to remain in Britain and potentially permission for close relatives, like children or a spouse, to join them.

Migrants Intercepted While Crossing English Channel From France
U.K. Border Force officials guide newly arrived migrants to a holding facility after being picked up in a dinghy in the English Channel on June 24, 2021 in Dover, England. Getty Images

But if someone arrives in the U.K. using an "informal" route — a small boat from France, or sneaking in on a semi-truck being the most common methods — the government would first try to deport the individual back home or to a "safe third country." If authorities were unable to do either of those things, the asylum-seeker would be granted a temporary protection status that would be subject to frequent review, and they could face criminal charges. They would also not be able to apply to bring immediate family to join them.

"We have taken back control of our legal immigration system by ending free movement and introducing a new points-based immigration system," a policy statement put together by the government said, referring to the tightening of legal immigration rules with Britain's "Brexit" from the European Union. "But to properly control our borders we must address the challenge of illegal immigration, too."

"A dangerous precedent"

The government's push for the new law comes amid a rise in small boat crossings from France. The uptick is generally attributed to increased security at French ports and shipping changes due to the coronavirus pandemic, both of which have made sneaking in on the back of trucks more difficult.

UK Border Force officials travel in a RIB with migrants picked up at sea whilst Crossing the English Channel, as they arrive at the Marina in Dover, southeast England on August 15, 2020. BEN STANSALL

The Refugee Council, a British charity that supports asylum seekers and refugees, estimates that if the bill is passed into law, between 9,000 and 21,600 applicants who would currently qualify for refugee status in Britain no longer would. The organization also predicts that the legislation, if passed, would not reduce the number of people making the journey to the U.K. to seek asylum.

"It will just treat people differently once they arrive," Andy Hewett, the Refugee Council's head of advocacy, told CBS News. "People who arrive in the U.K. to claim asylum will have different rights and entitlements depending on how they arrived in the U.K."

The proposed legislation has echoes of U.S. immigration policy under former President Trump, who sought to restrict asylum eligibility for those arriving at the border with Mexico.

More than 2 dozen migrant families reunited in past week 07:52

The Trump administration tried to disqualify people who entered the U.S. without permission from getting asylum, and it also instituted a short-lived "zero tolerance" policy under which it criminally prosecuted people for entering without permission. If parents received criminal charges, they were separated from their children. A court struck down the first part of the policy, while the latter practice, which led to the separation of thousands of migrant families, was discontinued in the wake of mass public outcry.

Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. also brokered "safe third country" agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in a bid to re-route asylum-seekers to these countries. Those deals have been scrapped by the Biden administration.

The U.K. Home Office had not provided CBS News with a comment at the time of publication.

Hewett said the policy proposed by the British government could end up pushing more people to try entering the U.K. without permission, rather than decreasing that number. By eliminating any hope of family reunification for asylum-seekers who enter without permission but have nowhere to be deported to, close relatives, usually women and children, could choose to make "irregular" journeys themselves in order to be together.

It "sets a dangerous precedent," Hewett said, adding that such laws could conflict with half-century-old international agreements that saw 149 nations commit to protecting refugees.

"What the U.K. have attempted to do is to discourage people from entering the U.K. to claim asylum… If every other country in the world, certainly if every other Western country in the world, followed suit with similar legislation, then that completely undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention, the whole notion of responsibility-sharing, and our obligations under the convention that we should recognize people in need of protection."

Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report.

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