The Home Secretary has vowed to tackle “illegal migration head-on” as she announced “the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades”.

Priti Patel said she was introducing a “comprehensive, fair but firm” plan which would address those entering the UK “illegally”.

In a statement, she told the Commons: “The Government has taken back control of legal immigration by ending free movement and introducing a points-based immigration system.

“We are now addressing the challenge of illegal migration head-on.

“I’m introducing the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades – a new, comprehensive, fair but firm long-term plan.

“Because while people are dying, we have a responsibility to act.”

For too long parts of the immigration system have been “open to abuse”, she said, adding that the system has become “overwhelmed” with a backlog of 109,000 asylum claims.

Some 52,000 are awaiting an initial decision and three-quarters are waiting a year or more, she told MPs.

Ms Patel added: “The persistent failure to enforce our immigration rules with a system that is open to gaming by economic migrants and exploitation by criminals is eroding public trust and disadvantaging vulnerable people who need our help.”

She put forward three “fair but firm objectives” to support those in genuine need for asylum, to deter illegal entry into the UK, and to remove more easily those with “no right to be here”.

Last year about 8,500 people arrived in the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats and the majority claimed asylum, the Home Office said.

Around 800 are estimated to have made the crossing so far this year, with a single day record for 2021 of 183 on Tuesday.

The Home Office has argued that “fairness” and a genuine need for refuge are at the heart of the new proposals, which will support those arriving through “safe and legal routes”.

For the first time, people who arrive in the UK illegally will no longer have the same entitlements as those who arrive legally under the Home Office plans, prompting charities and campaigners to condemn the changes for judging claimants on how they arrive and not just on merit.

Some experts questioned how effective the plans would be while others suggested it may cut the amount of protection offered to those making claims.

Some refugees living in the UK feared the plans could “punish” people seeking safety.

Kolbassia Haoussou, a director at charity Freedom from Torture who was made an MBE, claimed asylum having arrived “illegally” in the UK in 2005, after nearly drowning when crossing the Channel after escaping persecution in west Africa.

Under the new rules, he believes he would have been immediately deported, telling the PA news agency the proposals “make it clear that this Government isn’t serious about creating a fair asylum system, but about making it hostile for people”.

Earlier on Wednesday Ms Patel defended the proposals from accusations that they were “inhumane” as she confirmed the UK will look at sending migrants overseas for processing.

She argued the plans were necessary to deal with the “terrible trade” of people-smuggling and to fix the “broken” asylum system.

In the Commons, she had a message for critics: “And to those who say we lack compassion, I simply say, while people are dying we must act to deter these journeys.

“And if you don’t like our plan, where is yours?”

Ms Patel confirmed deals could be sought for foreign nations to process asylum claimants, saying the Government will “consider all options” but is yet to say which countries.

Last week Gibraltar and the Isle of Man rejected suggestions they could house such a site.

Other deals are yet to be struck with EU member states to return asylum seekers who have passed through their countries to get to the UK.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The plans risk baking into the UK system the callousness, frankly, of this Government’s approach,” adding that the measures “will do next to nothing to stop people making dangerous crossings and they risk withdrawing support from desperate people”.

The wide-ranging proposals, which are now the subject of a public consultation before the Government brings forward legislation as part of a Sovereign Borders Bill, also include measures to:
– Speed up the removal of people whose claims are refused.
– Conduct “rigorous age assessments” to stop adult migrants pretending to be children.
– Make tougher laws against people who pretend to be victims of modern slavery.
– Introduce maximum life sentences for people smugglers.
– Offer protection to vulnerable people in “immediate danger and at risk in their home country”.
– Address “historic anomalies” in the citizenship system.