LONDON -- The British government Tuesday proposed a plan to make it possible to transfer asylum-seekers out of the country while their applications are processed and to arrest those who arrive by boat across the English Channel, policies that rights groups say would violate international laws.
The plan, called the Nationality and Borders Bill, was brought forth by Priti Patel, the British home secretary, for a first reading Tuesday in Parliament. It is the latest measure introduced by the government to "fix the broken asylum system," as the Home Office described it in a statement.
Patel, in a statement before the bill's introduction, said the bill "delivers on what the British people have voted for time and time again -- for the U.K. to take full control of its borders."
It includes proposals to create a criminal offense of entering the country illegally, would give authorities more scope to make arrests and would make it easier "to remove someone to a safe country while their asylum claim is processed," the Home Office said.
The plan, if it were to take effect, would place Britain in the company of Denmark, which recently passed a law allowing for the offshore detention of refugees, and Australia, which has put in place similar measures. In adopting what until recent years had been considered a fringe approach to the issue, the British government seemingly reversed decades of global leadership in the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers.
The bill differentiates between refugees depending on how they journey to Britain, putting them in two distinct groups and basing their rights on their mode of arrival -- either through resettlement or by irregular means, which would be treated as a criminal matter.
The bill also introduces the option for asylum-seekers to be moved to a third country while their applications are processed, but that would be contingent on international agreements that do not currently exist. Some fear the plan could open the door for asylum-seekers to be held in detention centers abroad, where their rights and safety could be at risk.
Andy Hewett, head of advocacy for the Refugee Council, which works with refugees in Britain, said the idea that migrants who arrived by truck or boat were "somehow less genuine than refugees who arrived by resettlement, for example, is completely false."
The refugee proposal seems primed to emerge as the latest flash point in Britain's simmering culture wars, stoked in large part by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Michelle Pace, a professor in global studies at Roskilde University in Denmark and an associate fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank, said, "From a purely legal position, there is no way that these plans can actually be implemented."
She noted that any policy that involved the expulsion of asylum-seekers would violate the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia, Britain and Denmark are signatories.
"So the question that we have to ask is -- in the case of the U.K. -- who is Priti Patel really addressing here?" Pace said, noting the public pressure on a government that has increasingly taken an anti-immigration stance.
Critics of the Johnson government say it has made a practice of raising divisive cultural issues that it believes will translate into votes from the working-class voters it has drawn away from the opposition Labour Party in recent years -- with Brexit being another prime example.
The Times of London reported last week that representatives from the Home Office had met with Danish officials about potential cooperation at a processing center abroad, possibly in Rwanda, although that report has not been independently verified.
Lawmakers from the Labor Party quickly denounced the plan announced Tuesday, with Nick Thomas-Symonds, who speaks for the party on domestic affairs, calling the measures "unconscionable."
Rights advocates dismissed the British plan as an inhumane and unrealistic political ploy that failed to address the country's obligations to protect asylum-seekers.