Michael Howard has said his party will crack down hard on illegal immigration.
The Conservative leader called for MPs to agree an annual quota on the number of immigrants entering Britain.
Mr Howard said the Tories would also reinstate a system of checks on people leaving the UK and pull out of the “outdated” 1951 UN refugee convention.
But Home Office Minister Hazel Blears said Mr Howard’s strategy was too inflexible to work. The Refugee Council said it would “put lives at risk”.
Mr Howard acknowledged asylum and immigration were difficult areas for any politician to tackle, predicting his speech would be written off by some as a “lurch to the right”.
But, he said, immigration and asylum were a cause for concern across the world and right across Britain.
Britain’s immigration and asylum system had broken down and voters were aware it was “chaotic, unfair and out of control”, he said.
The former home secretary said his decision to lift checks for passengers leaving the UK for the EU was a mistake which had been compounded by New Labour’s decision to scrap all embarkation controls in March 1998.
On the UN convention he said it should be replaced with British legislation as the 1951 document has ceased to be effective.
The convention obliges nations to give shelter to people with a well-founded fear of persecution and forbids returning asylum seekers to countries where they might face further harm.
The UN High Commission for Refugees’ Peter Kessler said it was “preposterous” to suggest opting out of the convention would “lessen the number of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing their countries”.
But Mr Howard insisted: “Genuine refugees will be welcomed, but those who are not will be swiftly removed.”
Under Tory proposals, the annual immigration limit would be approved by Parliament.
Mr Howard said: “Over the years hundreds of immigrant communities have successfully integrated into British society.
“They have rightly held on to their traditions and culture, while also embracing Britain’s and playing their full role in our national life.
“But any system of immigration must be properly controlled.”
Mr Howard, himself the son of an immigrant, said that the limit on immigration should be determined by “Britain’s economic needs, demands of family reunion and our moral obligation to give refuge to those fleeing persecution”.
Home Office figures for 2003 revealed 139,675 people were granted the right to stay in the UK that year.
Of those, 66,000 were allowed in to join their families, 29,000 were permitted to stay after working in Britain and 21,000 were asylum cases.
Ms Blears asked what would happen if the quota was filled and somebody facing torture or needed for a hospital job wanted to enter Britain.
“This is the Tories using asylum and immigration in a nakedly political way, it is appalling,” she told BBC News 24.
Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten MP said: “Michael Howard’s approach is all about limiting not welcoming.
“The Liberal Democrats will make the positive case on immigration by setting quotas linked to the economic case. Mr Howard wants quotas as a way of capping immigration.”
UK Independence Party MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk said Mr Howard had “plagiarised” a speech he made earlier in September advocating quotas, a point system and pulling out of the 1951 convention.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said that it was “utterly shocked that the Conservative Party seems prepared to ditch Britain’s long-standing humanitarian commitment to the Geneva Convention”.
The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Maeve Sherlock, said the Conservatives’ strategy failed to contribute to the asylum debate in a constructive way.
“These proposals quite clearly will not offer refugees a safe haven in the UK,” she said.
“We need separate systems for refugees and for people coming here to work.
“An arbitrary limit on all immigration, including refugees, would put lives at risk and would damage our economy.”