PRITI Patel’s plans to crack down on the rights of refugees have been described as the biggest threat to them for decades and a direct threat to the principle of providing asylum.

The criticism came from the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, Sabir Zazai, after the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) warned the Home Secretary her proposals risked “breaching international law”.

Under the plans, any refugee arriving in the UK through irregular means – such as crossing the Channel by boat – will be deported to any “safe country” they travelled through, for instance, France. They will also have fewer rights than those arriving via legal routes, and may only be given “temporary protection status”, with regular reassessment for deportation from the UK, limited family reunion rights and limited access to benefits.

That prompted a warning from the UNHCR of a “discriminatory two-tier asylum system”.

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Zazai told The National: “These proposals are a direct threat to the very principle of providing asylum, and put plainly, are the biggest threat to refugee rights in the UK that we have seen for decades.

“The plan to create a two-tier asylum system based on how a person arrived in the UK is discriminatory and undermines the UN Refugee Convention.

“For the vast majority of people seeking protection, doing so through an organised and official route is simply impossible.

“There is no illegal route to seek asylum, and the UK Government is perfectly aware of this. The UK Government must urgently rethink these cruel and inhumane plans.”

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UNHCR’s UK representative, said: “Mental health will suffer. This feels like a recipe for social problems.”

Usman Aslam, an immigration lawyer in Glasgow, said he was concerned on several fronts – first the concept of a “safe route” to claim asylum, which was “misleading beyond measure”.

He said: “Refugees usually have to run from their own governments when they face persecution. They obviously cannot apply for a visa and seek permission from the government that they are running from. UK legislation made it clear that asylum seekers have a statutory defence when they do have to enter illegally. This is what refugees have to do.”

Aslam said Patel’s two-tier system made no sense, and gave an example of two refugees from Iran, forced to flee for, say, their sexuality or religion, which could result in them being hanged: “One goes to a dangerous refugee camp – believe me they are dangerous I have been to a few – and awaits what would be a lottery of being selected to come to the UK. The other does what a normal refugee would do which is to run to safety. Both are in the same position but the latter would be penalised on arrival to the UK under the new plans.

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“As for the safer route, what Patel means here is resettlement. The UK already have an embarrassing record of around 25,000 since 2015 according to the Government policy statement in April. There is no point of trying to convey to the public that she will create a safer legal route, when the current safer routes such as family reunion, already restrictive, is being made harder and harder.”

He added: “What the Secretary of State should do is try to address her own issues – delays of what is often years before a claim is assessed ... why half of decisions are so badly worded they are overturned at court ... the real figures of how many refugees are actually here in comparison to the rest of the world ... the immigration rules, especially after the Court of Appeal yesterday criticised her again.

“Nowhere in the Refugee Convention of 1951, which the UK is a signatory to, does it require an asylum seeker to claim asylum at the first safe country ... Punishing victims of torture, or abuse for fleeing is simply wrong in what is meant to be a civilised society. We must remember, these are matters of life and death.”