Government threats to jail alleged people smugglers involved in English Channel crossings for life have been labelled a “cheap stunt” by campaigners.
Priti Patel wants to increase the maximum sentence for the crime of assisting unlawful immigration because she believes the current limit of 14 years’ imprisonment is “not long enough”, The Times reported.
The offence is predominantly being used against asylum seekers who steer dinghies, despite an official report finding that there are “no organised crime group members onboard the boats”.
The home secretary vowed to make Channel crossings “unviable” in August, but her pledge was followed by record numbers and arrivals have continued.
More than 100 people made it to the UK on small boats on Friday and Saturday, bringing the total so far in 2021 to 530 – double the figure at the same point last year.
At least 17 migrants who steered dinghies across the English Channel have been jailed since August, for between 16 months and more than three years.
Under Ms Patel’s reported proposals, the maximum sentence for the offence they were prosecuted for would be increased to life imprisonment, up from the current 14 years.
On Monday, Boris Johnson said the government was determined to crack down on people “putting lives at risk” in the Channel.
Speaking on a visit to Stoke-on-Trent, the prime minister said: “It is outrageous that the gangsters, the people smugglers, these thugs, are still putting people’s lives at risk in the way that they are, taking money to help people cross the Channel in unseaworthy vessels, risking their lives.
“What we are going to do is to absolutely, ruthlessly stiffen the sentences for anybody who is involved in this kind of people smuggling and trafficking human beings across the Channel.”
The Home Office said further details on the sentencing proposals would be set out in the coming weeks, adding: “While criminal gangs continue to put lives at risk it is right we consider every option to stop their exploitation of people.”
Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, called the plans a “cheap stunt, designed to shift the blame for the chaotic scenes that continue to play out in the Channel”.
“Priti Patel has been encouraging the prosecution of those who seek asylum themselves, simply for steering their boat to safety, and now she wants to leave those same people at risk of a lifetime in British prison,” she told The Independent.
“Anything to distract from the desperate need for humanitarian visas for those who seek safety in the UK – the only way to truly prevent the further escalation of dangerous crossings”.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said the asylum seekers currently being prosecuted for assisting unlawful immigration “are not people smugglers”.
The council’s legal policy director Chai Patel added: “Ms Patel has left people who are desperate to reach safety in the UK with no choice, and is now proposing an extraordinary violation of the principles of refugee protection by threatening them with life sentences for trying to claim asylum.
“Meanwhile, the real traffickers and smugglers continue to profit from the market she has created by closing off all the legal routes to claiming asylum.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is entirely reasonable to simultaneously prosecute the criminals who put lives at risk, while also resettling refugees in a safe and legal way. We will continue to do both as we roll out a new global resettlement scheme in the future as part of a firm and fair asylum system.”
Campaign groups have repeatedly asked the government to expand safe and legal routes for claiming asylum in the UK, which have been reduced because of coronavirus and Brexit.
The British government’s flagship scheme for resettling refugees from camps outside Europe was paused between March and December 2020, and the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January has made family reunification harder.
A report by parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee when Ms Patel was a member said the number of migrants trying to reach the UK by sea would rise and current measures were not working.
Published in November 2019, it called for the government to increase legal routes to seek asylum, improve “dire” conditions in French camps, and address the root causes of migration.
“A policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups,” the report said.
“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”
But the home secretary has since vowed to “use the full force of the law to put organised criminals behind bars”, and Home Office officials have been targeting migrants who steer boats by identifying them using drones and referring them for prosecution.
Until last year, the offence of assisting unlawful immigration was used to prosecute people smugglers who bring migrants to the UK for profit, such as lorry drivers and members of organised crime networks.
In a report on small boat crossings published in October, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) said organised criminal activity was mostly taking place in France.
The document said immigration enforcement’s criminal and financial investigation team found small boat investigations “difficult because there were no organised crime group members onboard the boats, although one of the migrants might have agreed with the facilitators to act as a ‘chaperone’ for a reduced fee”.
Some of the men jailed for steering boats paid full price for their journey and a Yemeni asylum seeker previously told The Independent that smugglers forced him to facilitate journeys before he was allowed to cross the Channel himself.
In October, a judge found that migrants who pilot boats do not organise Channel crossings, may be coerced and threatened, and are ultimately “one of the trafficked”.
“The reality for a pilot in these cases is that he is one of a boat-load of migrants who are effectively indistinguishable from one another, except for that fact that he happens to have agreed to steer,” Judge Rupert Lowe said while jailing a 30-year-old Iraqi man.