Migrants who cross the English Channel to claim asylum in the UK will no longer be prosecuted, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has said.
The agreement struck between police, prosecutors, the National Crime Agency, Border Force and the Home Office over cases involving “illegal entry” will also apply to those arriving by lorry.
Fresh guidance published on Thursday also sets out the circumstances when criminal charges may be considered for those bringing migrants to the UK while posing a risk to their lives.
The CPS said the guidance confirms that “individuals who have played a significant role in people-smuggling, including those who organise and pilot dangerous boat crossings across the English Channel, can expect to face prosecution where this is supported by the evidence.
“However, recognising migrants and asylum seekers often have no choice in how they travel and face exploitation by organised crime groups (OCGs), prosecutors are also asked to consider the published public interest factors in charging those merely entering illegally.
“The guidance therefore advises that passengers of boats and other vehicles should not be prosecuted unless they are repeat offenders or have previously been deported – and should instead be with dealt with by administrative removal channels.”
Frank Ferguson, who leads CPS work on immigration crime, said the approach “strikes a proportionate balance between deterring criminal gangs from attempting dangerous crossings and acting in the interests of justice and compassion”, adding: “It is right that those who exploit and profit from the desperation of others, or put lives at risk through controlling or driving overcrowded small boats or confined lorries, are considered for prosecution.
“But we also have a duty to consider the public interest in prosecuting passengers, who often have no choice about their method of travel, for offences that can usually be better dealt with by removal.”
It comes as a number of people believed to be migrants, including a young child, were seen arriving in the port of Dover.
They are thought to have made the journey from France despite winds gusting up to 22mph on the Kent coast.
Earlier this year 31-year-old migrant Fouad Kakaei, who was fleeing persecution in Iran and helped pilot a packed dinghy across the Channel, had his conviction for breaching immigration law quashed.
Regarding passengers, the guidance says: “It is unlikely that those who are simply occupants would be prosecuted”, adding that the “focus for prosecutions should be on those with more significant roles, i.e. those that facilitate the entry”.
If passengers are “intercepted or rescued at sea it is unlikely that any offence of illegal entry has been committed in law”.
It adds: “In cases involving the use of a boat where the sole intention is to be intercepted by BF (Border Force) at sea and brought into port for asylum claims to be made, no breach of immigration law will take place.
“The same applies where the intention is to sail the boat to a designated port of entry in order to claim asylum.”
The news has prompted campaigners to call for the Government’s plans for sweeping reforms of the asylum system to be scrapped.
Ministers have been accused of trying to criminalise refugees under the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill which was introduced to Parliament this week. But the Home Office insists the changes would “prioritise those most in need of protection”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, who previously vowed to make Channel crossings “unviable”, insisted the proposed new laws are part of her plan for a “fair but firm” immigration system.
The Liberal Democrats said the changes to the CPS guidance were welcome but should not have been “necessary”, while Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action, warned the Bill would “row back” on such progress.
Earlier on Thursday the UN’s refugee agency voiced a “deep concern” of the reforms, likening some of the ideas to an “almost neo-colonial approach” to “shift burden” rather than share “responsibilities” on providing support to refugees.