LONDON — Vowing to keep Brexit promises to control Britain’s borders, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a crackdown on cross-Channel smuggling routes on Thursday in which most migrants will be quickly screened and detained, and those who don’t respond not meet the strict asylum criteria will be flown 4,000 miles to Rwanda for processing.
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Britain will deploy the Royal Navy to patrol the channel and intercept ships sailing from the French coast, Johnson said. Smugglers found guilty of piloting the devices could be sentenced to life in prison.
Under the plan, which requires parliamentary approval, most migrants crossing the Channel illegally will be deemed inadmissible for seeking asylum in Britain, as their journeys will have taken them through safe countries where they could have applied for asylum.
Johnson suggested that “tens of thousands” of these migrants could be sent to Rwanda, where they would seek asylum or refugee status – or be sent back to their countries of origin.
He called the African nation “one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognized for its record of welcoming and integrating migrants”.
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British officials have said the policy will be to send all inadmissible adults – men and women – to Rwanda. They said they would not send children or unaccompanied minors, or break up families with children. People deemed to have viable asylum claims can stay in Britain to pursue their case.
“Strikingly, around 7 in 10 people who arrived in small boats last year were men under 40, paying smugglers to avoid queues and taking our ability to help real refugee women and children,” Johnson said.
“It is particularly perverse because those trying to cross are not directly fleeing imminent peril as is the purpose of our asylum system,” he said. “They passed through demonstrably safe countries, many of them in Europe, where they could have – and should have – sought asylum.”
British Home Secretary Priti Patel visited Rwanda on Thursday to sign a deal, which includes $160 million in aid to the country.
The plan, part of a new Citizenship and Borders Bill, must first pass through parliament, where Johnson’s Conservative Party holds a large majority.
The opposition Labor Party called the proposal “impossible, unethical and exorbitant”. Advocacy groups have warned that these measures could violate human rights.
Johnson conceded there would likely be legal challenges aimed at blocking the plan’s implementation. He denied the measures were “draconian or lacking in compassion”.
Johnson said it was much worse to let people drown in the canal. He denounced human traffickers for their role.
“These vile smugglers abuse the vulnerable and turn the canal into a watery graveyard, with men, women and children drowning in broken boats and suffocating in refrigerated trucks,” he said.
Johnson predicted that the plan would soon be adopted as “an international model”.
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He said it was aimed at “breaking the business model” of smuggling gangs, which can earn $400,000 for every launch of an unseaworthy dinghy.
He said he was sending a message that people who cross illegally “risk ending up not in the UK but in Rwanda”. He described this as “a considerable deterrent”.
Some migrants are smuggled into Britain in shipping containers, freight trucks and trains. In 2019, the bodies of 39 Vietnamese – including two boys and eight women – were found in a refrigerated semi-trailer abandoned by its driver in south-east England.
The channel, beset by fast tides and frequent storms, is also one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. In one incident in November, at least 27 migrants died attempting the crossing.
More than 28,500 people were apprehended last year trying to enter Britain through the chain, up from 8,400 in 2020.
About 600 people made the crossing on Wednesday. Johnson warned that thousands a day could make the attempt in the coming weeks as the weather warms and seas calm.
“I accept that these people – whether 600 or 1,000 – are looking for a better life,” he said. “But it was those hopes – those dreams – that were exploited.”
Johnson stressed that the British people were welcoming and generous, but that illegal immigration placed an unsustainable burden on the country’s schools, health system and welfare state.
“We cannot maintain a parallel illegal system,” the prime minister said. “Our compassion may be infinite, but our ability to help people is not.”