Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Saturday defended his government’s plans to electronically tag asylum seekers who cross the English Channel, days into a new, yearlong pilot program that has drawn widespread condemnation from refugee and human rights groups.
Under the new guidelines, those who travel to Britain via what the government terms “unnecessary and dangerous routes” would be fitted with a GPS tag and be required to regularly report to the authorities. Some people could also be subject to curfew and exclusion from certain locations, the guidelines said.
Those who fail to comply would risk detention and prosecution.
Mr. Johnson, speaking to reporters at a British air force base Saturday after returning from an unannounced visit to Ukraine, defended the monitoring as a way to keep people arriving in the country in the migration system, saying the plans would ensure “asylum seekers can’t just vanish into the rest of the country.” He added that he was “proud” of Britain’s track record on taking in refugees.
Refugee organizations and human rights lawyers have harshly condemned the new monitoring measures, saying that they treat people seeking safe haven like criminals. They have also warned that the surveillance and rules could have potentially devastating effects on people who have already endured abuses.
“It’s appalling that this government is intent on treating men, women and children who have fled war, bloodshed and persecution as criminals,” said Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, a British-based organization that works with refugees and asylum seekers.
“This draconian and punitive approach not only shows no compassion for very vulnerable people, it will also do nothing to deter those who are desperately seeking safety in the U.K.,” he said.
According to the guidelines, caseworkers are required to consider an array of factors when deciding whether a person should be electronically tagged, including whether a claim of torture has been accepted by Britain’s Home Office.
But the guidance goes on to say that such a factor “does not in itself prohibit imposing such a condition,” adding, “it may still be appropriate to maintain electronic monitoring due to other relevant factors.”
People who are designated to be monitored are fitted with tags when they are granted bail and released from detention, officials said.
The potential tracking of people who survived torture or other government abuses particularly outraged some refugee advocates.
“The amount of suffering that can be caused to someone who is a torture survivor or who is mentally ill far outweighs the very minimal benefits for the government,” said Sue Willman, a human rights lawyer and the chairwoman of the Human Rights Committee at The Law Society, a British legal group. “The person is being effectively surveilled 24/7 — while they’re on the toilet, while they’re in bed.”
She called the measure “entirely disproportionate” in its harm, citing a recent government figure that “only 1 percent of people released on bail actually abscond.”
The prime minister said Saturday that he was confident his government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was legal despite the European court’s injunction, a decision Mr. Johnson described as a “weird last-minute hiccup.” Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, accused the court of being politically motivated.
The Home Office declined to provide the exact number of asylum seekers that have so far been assigned electronic tags. A spokesperson said that the 130 people who at one point were at risk of being on the Rwanda flight “could be in the scope” of the program.
“The government will not be deterred as we plan for the next flight to Rwanda,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We will keep as many people in detention as the law allows but where a court orders that an individual due to be on Tuesday’s flight should be released, we will tag them where appropriate.”
The number of people crossing the English Channel — the busiest shipping lane in the world — to reach Britain this year has passed 11,000, according to a Press Association analysis of government data. That is more than double the figure from during the same period last year.
The same day the scheduled flight to Rwanda was grounded, 444 people made the crossing, the most since April.
The United Nations refugee agency, citing British government data, said this month that “a clear majority” of people arriving in Britain by small boat should be considered refugees fleeing war and persecution. However, the British government has repeatedly referred to them as “migrants,” an assertion that the U.N. agency says does not accord with the government’s own data.
Last year, more than 28,000 people crossed the English Channel in small boats, according to the British government. At least 44 people either died or went missing during the attempt.
In November, a dinghy traveling from France to Britain capsized, causing the deaths of 27 people on board. It was the deadliest incident in the English Channel since the International Organization for Migration first began collecting data in 2014.