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Record number of migrants and asylum seekers reach U.K. by boat in a single day

London — At least 430 migrants and asylum seekers crossed the English Channel to reach the U.K. on Monday, the highest number to make the dangerous journey from Europe ever recorded, according to reports. The record daily crossings came as U.K. lawmakers debated an immigration bill that would make attempting the crossing — even to make a legitimate asylum claim — a crime.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government and currently under consideration by parliamentarians, would continue to grant access to the U.K.'s asylum system for those who make authorized arrivals, on an airplane with a travel visa, for instance. But any person attempting to make an unauthorized entry into the U.K., like by crossing the English Channel on a small boat, would not be eligible for asylum in Britain, could be sent for processing to a "safe third country," and could face up to four years in jail.

Migrant Channel crossing incidents
A group of people thought to be migrants crossing from France come ashore from the local lifeboat at Dungeness in Kent, England, after being picked-up following a small boat incident in the Channel on July 20, 2021. Gareth Fuller/PA Images/Getty

Nearly 8,000 people have reached the U.K. in small boats so far this year, most coming ashore along the southern English coast, according to the BBC. 

The Refugee Council, a British charity that works with asylum seekers and refugees, says between 9,000 and 21,600 people who currently qualify for refugee status no longer would if the law is passed.

A map shows southern England, and across the English Channel and the North Sea, northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  Getty/iStockphoto

"What the U.K. have attempted to do is to discourage people from entering the U.K. to claim asylum," Andy Hewett, Head of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, told CBS News. "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."

Hewett said the bill would create a two-tier system, where some pre-authorized asylum seekers would have access to the refugee system while others who make unauthorized journeys to Britain would not.

"The new Nationality & Borders Bill includes sweeping penalties for refugees who arrive spontaneously in the UK," the United Nations refugee agency in the U.K. said on Twitter. "The UK risks breaching commitments under the Refugee Convention that clearly protect the universal right to seek asylum and for refugees to access basic rights."

"There is an unacceptable rise in dangerous small boat crossings across the channel because of a surge in illegal migration across Europe," the U.K. Home Office said in a statement. "People should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and not risk their lives making these dangerous crossings. We are continuing to pursue the criminals behind these illegal crossings."

"Don't stop moving until you feel safe"

Dr. Waheed Arian, a medical doctor who came to Britain as a refugee and has worked on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, published an open letter on Tuesday opposing the bill.

"Under this Government's proposed plans, I would not have been given the chance to become an NHS doctor, let alone learn English or study medicine at Cambridge University. I would have been classed as an 'illegal arrival', denied access to the asylum system, prosecuted for breaking the law, and summarily removed from the country," Arian wrote.

He's calling on British lawmakers to vote against the legislation.

"A person fleeing war or persecution will be criminalized if their arrival is not pre-authorized through, for example, a resettlement scheme. Most people running for their lives don't have the 'luxury' of requesting pre-approval. In Afghanistan, there was no 'legal' escape route available to me. I know too well that when your life is in danger, you don't stop moving until you feel safe," Arian wrote.

Echoes of former U.S. policy

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.

Biden faces challenges on immigration policy 11:43

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.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report.

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