LEICESTER, United Kingdom – New changes to the United Kingdom’s asylum system announced on Wednesday are “cruel and dishonest,” according to the country’s Catholic refugee agency.

The British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said her office plans to remove asylum seekers who arrived illegally in the UK through so-called “safe” third countries, usually France. At the same time, she said the UK plans to expand “safe and legal” options for asylum seekers to reach the country.

“I make no apology for these actions being firm, but as they will also save lives and target people smugglers, they are also undeniably fair,” she said.

The Home Office is the UK government branch that oversees security and immigration issues.

Patel said the move was to combat human traffickers who illegally transport asylum seekers over the English Channel, often in unsafe boats.

“The Red Cross, the UNHCR and other agencies, they are partner organizations, we will work with them to create safe and legal routes so we can stop this terrible, terrible trade in people being smuggled,” she said in a BBC interview.

The Home Secretary said refugees should seek asylum in the first safe country they enter, which is often an EU state on the Mediterranean basin.

“We are speaking to EU member states right now and having negotiations … They have a moral duty to save lives and stop people being trafficked through their countries,” Patel told the BBC.

However, Sarah Teather, the director of Jesuit Refugee Service UK (JRS UK), said the “safe and legal” routes are often “limited and restricted.”

“The changes being announced are cruel and dishonest. The government knows full well that those seeking safety are forced to cross borders irregularly. An asylum system designed to penalize this is lying about its purpose,” she said.

Teather called the announcement a “dark day in Britain’s history.”

“The country which was once at the forefront of championing the refugee convention has announced it no longer supports the right to claim asylum and be granted sanctuary here from violence,” she said.

Migrant Voice, a UK advocacy group, said Patel’s proposals create a two-tier system “that punishes those who manage to find their own route to safety and condemns them to a life in limbo with restricted rights.”

“People fleeing persecution and death have the right to seek sanctuary. That is the starting point, and no policy should undermine it. We are dealing here with human beings: They cannot be treated like commodities,” the group said in a statement.

“The government’s rhetoric about people smugglers is a diversion. Smugglers are irrelevant in this equation: They are the product of current policies, opportunistically filling a gap in the market. Legal routes would put them out of business,” the statement continued.

The British government says 35,099 people made asylum applications in UK from March 2019 to March 2020, well below the numbers in large EU countries such as Germany, Spain, France, and Italy.

Speaking to the Guardian, a UNHCR spokesperson denied the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol required asylum seekers to apply in the first safe country they enter.

“Anyone seeking asylum should be able to claim in their intended destination or another safe country,” the spokesperson said.

“Some claimants have very legitimate reasons to seek protection in specific countries, including family or other links,” he told the newspaper.

A JRS UK representative told Crux asylum seekers have to do what they can to reach security.

“Many of those who are forced to flee their homes from persecution, war and violence do so in order to seek permanent sanctuary and rebuild a new life elsewhere. There are very few routes deemed ‘legal’ by the government that are available to people who are desperately seeking safety in the UK, as somewhere where they can rebuild their life, or reunite with family members,” the spokesperson said.

“Of these routes, many are limited and restrictive.  For example, last year MPs voted against continuing to resettle unaccompanied refugee children who wish to reunite with family members in the UK. Those who arrive in the UK seeking sanctuary often spend months, or even years on long and perilous journeys, during which time they often experience torture, trafficking and modern slavery,” she added.

The JRS representative told Crux asylum seekers who seek safety in the UK by crossing the English Channel on small boats are extremely vulnerable and may be experiencing ongoing trauma.

“They have been left no other choice but to risk their lives, and those of their family on their journey. There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ person, as the right to claim asylum upon entry in the UK is protected by the refugee convention. Furthermore, those seeking sanctuary often have to leave in haste and without documentation. Even if expanded, managed routes alone cannot guarantee that everyone who needs sanctuary can access it,” she said.

Patel’s plain is also complicated by Brexit, since the UK is no longer part of the so-called Dublin protocol, which provided a mechanism for the return of illegal migrants to other EU countries.

The JRS UK representative told Crux the impact of of Brexit is still unfolding.

“It means that the UK is no longer signatory to the Dublin III protocol, under which asylum claimants could be transferred between EU states, so most plans to remove people who have travelled via other European countries are likely to be unworkable, and cause long delays to the asylum process of no benefit to anyone involved,” she said.

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