Politics

Keir Starmer's 'golden opportunity' on immigration – but doubts remain for new prime minister

From the asylum system to fixing broken rhetoric, here's what experts say Keir Starmer needs to do on immigration

Keir Starmer and his wife Victoria stand on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street

Starmer has won a landslide. What will his time in power hold for immigration? Image: Kirsty O'Connor/No 10 Downing Street/Flickr

Keir Starmer finds himself inside Downing Street and setting out on his term as prime minister, with immigration set to remain prominent – both in terms of politics and policy.

Starmer has promised to kill the Rwanda scheme, reduce net migration, and introduce a new border security command. Labour has also confirmed it will not immediately stop housing asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage has become an MP at the eighth attempt, while his Reform party gained four MPs and a greater vote share than the Liberal Democrats.

But what will really happen? We spoke to some experts to find out.

‘The politics around immigration are not fundamentally changed’

The monumental landslide for Labour does not necessarily represent a shift in the tenor of the UK’s conversations around immigration, said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director.

“The concern is that the politics around immigration are not fundamentally changed. It does appear that there will be a significant change in the way in which people who are already here seeking asylum will be treated, and that in itself will be welcome,” said Valdez-Symonds.

“It doesn’t really feel that there is a fundamental change in thinking that the priority when it comes to asylum is to ensure that this country plays a full part in its shared responsibilities for protecting refugees.”

While “Stop the Boats” was not a slogan to deliver an election victory for the Conservatives, and Starmer will scrap the Rwanda scheme, a tone of hostility still concerned Valdez-Symonds.

“It doesn’t seem that Labour is any more relaxed about wider immigration than their predecessors. On the wider immigration front, I suppose the concern will be that there will be a further effort to try and make things harsh and difficult for people who come to the country,” he said.

“In the very early days of this government there is at least some opportunity to try and impress on them, that really something a bit more radical by way of change than just more policing efforts and security and walls is what’s needed.”

Doubts over Starmer’s plans for a Border Security Command

While the Rwanda scheme is off the table, both immigration and the asylum system will remain a major job for Starmer, said Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais, the charity which took the government to court over the Rwanda scheme and halted removals.

“He has to face dealing with not just an enormous backlog of asylum claims that have been processed in such a plodding and leaden-footed way that the backlog has built up to an extraordinary height. He also has to deal with tens of thousands of individuals who have been left in limbo,” Smith told the Big Issue.

A key part of Starmer’s offering was a new Border Security Command, funded by scrapping Rwanda. This “carrot” to Tory voters, said Smith, may not end up happening. The UK is no longer in the EU, no longer has access to the European Arrest Warrant system, and cannot access the Schengen Information System for tracking cross-border activity.

“Many if not most of the people smugglers operate out of the UK anyway. How do you do those things with their bank accounts, their property, their illicit earnings, when all of those things are happening offshore in Europe?” asked Smith.

“I would rather hope it sort of withers on the vine”.

Instead, Smith hoped Starmer would allow offshore screening of individual cases, with safe routes provided to reduce the number attempting to enter the UK via illegal means.

“When they get here, for goodness sake allow them to work,” Smith added. “Being stuck in limbo for one, two years, whatever, they can become completely isolated from work and community, and therefore starting again from scratch becomes so much more difficult.”

A ‘golden opportunity’

“The newly elected Labour government has a golden opportunity to fix our chaotic, costly and dysfunctional asylum system once and for all,” said Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council.

This goes beyond scrapping the Rwanda scheme, to repealing the Illegal Migration Act and expanding safe routes. But a wider change around immigration can be effected, said Solomon.

“Above all, the new Labour government needs to reset Home Office culture to ensure that everyone who comes to this country in search of safety, from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan, is treated with compassion and supported to integrate into our communities,” Solomon said.

“It must also govern in a different language – one that speaks to the importance of a shared humanity and a shared society where all of us can play a part.”

‘It’s not a time to be complacent’

The end of the government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their claims processed was met with relief by Mary Atkinson of the Joint Centre for the Welfare of Immigrants.

“We’re very relieved that it’s been taken off the table, and it’s been an incredibly stressful election for a lot of our clients with this scheme hanging in the balance. It’s taken a toll on people’s mental wellbeing. We’re looking forward to seeing a post-Rwanda reality,” said Atkinson.

“It’s not a time to be complacent. The vote share Reform got could be taken as a message. The new government needs to be careful about that. It’s clear that anti-migration messaging has been compelling to people. But the statistics don’t lie. People up and down the country are increasingly pro-migration.”

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