Social Justice

Can Keir Starmer really stop the boats? Labour warned immigration plan doesn't go far enough

Labour leader Keir Starmer says he'll scrap the Rwanda scheme and introduce a new Border Security Command. Migration experts are dubious

Keir Starmer greets new Labour MP Natalie Elphicke

Keir Starmer welcomed Tory MP Natalie Elphicke to the Labour Party, as she criticised the Tories record on migration. Image: Keir Starmer/Flickr

Keir Starmer’s newly-unveiled plan to tackle small boat crossings is unlikely to tackle the root cause of Channel tragedies, a charity has warned.

The Labour leader said in a speech on Friday (10 May) his government, if elected, would scrap the government’s Rwanda scheme and funnel £541m to a new “Border Security Command”, as well as giving new officers anti-terror powers to deal with people smugglers.

It comes after the defection of former Tory MP Natalie Elphicke to the poll-leading opposition party. Elphicke, the MP for Dover and Deal and considered to be on the right of the Conservative Party on immigration, said Rishi Sunak’s party “cannot be trusted” to keep the country’s border secure.

But it led to warnings that the fundamental issues were being left unaddressed. “Time and time again, increasing securitisation and militarisation of the border in northern France has only fuelled more violence. This is what has pushed people into taking ever more dangerous journeys, often with tragic outcomes. There is no reason to believe further ‘deterrent’ tactics will be any different,” Mary Atkinson, campaigns and networks manager at the Joint Centre for the Welfare of Immigrants, told the Big Issue.

“Instead, we must safeguard people’s right under international law to seek safety. The way to do this, and to avoid people having to risk their lives, is to create safe, legal routes for people on the move, and support communities to welcome them when they arrive.”

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Starmer said the Rwanda scheme would create a “perma backlog” of almost 100,000 people, echoing warnings from charities including the Refugee Council that tens of thousands will find themselves refused asylum, unable to have their claims processed, but also unable to be removed from the country. 

Labour has previously said it would let those who cross the Channel in small boats claim asylum, in practice undoing part of the Conservatives’ Illegal Migration Act – a law refugee charities say will contribute to the “perma backlog”.

“Whoever is in government must focus beyond anything else on running a fair and effective asylum system that actually processes people’s claims. The current system is in meltdown, with thousands of people shut out of the asylum process and living in indefinite limbo,” said Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council.

“Men, women and children from countries such as Afghanistan and Syria with clear protection needs face endless uncertainty, while those whose claims have been refused are not being supported to return to the countries from which they came.

“Unless this is addressed urgently, it is only going to get worse, with more than 100,000 people being left stranded at huge cost to the taxpayer by the end of the year.”

Pledging to “rebuild” the UK’s asylum system, Starmer’s speech took aim at reducing the number of small boat crossings. As of 21 April, 6,265 people had made the crossing across the English Channel in small boats during the first months of 2024.

Home secretary James Cleverly said Labour’s plan would make the UK the “asylum capital of the world”. This would require the UK taking an additional three million asylum seekers and refugees, overtaking the 3.4 million hosted by both Iran and Turkey.

At the heart of the highly-politicised problems with the UK’s asylum system is the hostile environment, said Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action.

“Whoever makes up the next government, they must end this hostile environment and build a refugee protection system that respects people’s right to claim asylum, creates safe routes to reach the UK, and tackles the racism that lies at the heart of immigration policy,” said Naor Hilton.

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