15 September 2023

Starmer’s plan to stop the boats is to surrender


Keir Starmer might talk tough on illegal immigration, but Labour’s plan for stopping the small boats can be summed up in one word: surrender. Surrender on principles, and surrender in practice. It is all too clear that Labour’s anti-Churchillian, Merkel-esque approach is only going to deepen the crisis in the Channel and entice more migrants to cross the Mediterranean into Europe than ever before.

Labour’s policy, in essence, is as follows. On the one hand there is the law and order framing. If we can just ‘smash the gangs’ by expanding the use of serious crime prevention orders and anti-terrorist legislation, then the means of crossing the Channel will be reduced. On the other hand, there is the supranational framing. If we can just reduce demand to cross the Channel through signing a migrant returns agreement, then we will simultaneously ‘destroy the business model’ of the people smugglers. 

Instead of the ‘inhumane’ Rwanda scheme, which will be scrapped, Labour would come to an arrangement with the EU. In exchange for us signing up to an EU-wide asylum seekers quota – so-called ‘safe and legal routes’ from the continent, basically – the EU would, we are told, strike a returns agreement similar to the Dublin Regulations to which we were party before Brexit. The Illegal Immigration Act would also be repealed, so only those whose asylum applications actually failed would be eligible to be returned, not everyone who enters Britain illegally, as is now the case.  

In addition to these measures, Labour would expedite the processing of asylum claims to clear the backlog. This would get migrants out of hotels and so banish headlines about the millions of pounds being spent daily to put migrants up in plush hotels at the taxpayer’s expense. 

However, every component of this plan is riddled with practical flaws and based on false or immoral premises. In the first place, smashing the gangs – if only the Tories had thought of that! In fact, we know that cross-border intelligence sharing and criminal investigations have had some impact on numbers. But as the National Crime Agency (NCA) noted just a few days ago, there are too many gangs and they are too decentralised. Tackling the gangs is ‘like whack-a-mole’: as soon as one of the dozen or so networks is dispersed, another takes its place – ‘all you need is a phone and a dinghy which aren’t illegal items’. Starmer should listen to the experts: ‘The NCA position is that you need an effective removals and deterrence agreement’. Interdiction helps at the margins, but it is no solution.

Nor is Labour’s proposal for a two-way agreement with the EU. Starmer’s approach resembles that taken by Joe Biden (but with a supranational rather than international twist). Mexico has pledged to take back 30,000 migrants a month. But in return, the US has opened up safe and legal routes across Latin America for 30,000 individuals a month. Rather than stopping illegal immigration, Biden has rebranded it as legal. It’s like getting the crime stats down by legalising burglary.   

Labour’s policy would amount to the same thing, though under an EU asylum quota system based on population and GDP, Britain could end up taking far more migrants than the 45,000 who crossed the Channel last year. Going by an EU Council document published in June, Britain could be expected to take around 120,000 asylum seekers a year – and that assumes irregular immigration into Europe does not increase further, when all indicators suggest that it will, and quite substantially.  

Another fundamental problem with Labour’s position is that it effectively cedes control of our borders to the EU. As a diehard Remainer, this repudiation of the Brexit vote and British sovereignty probably doesn’t bother Starmer. But it means the EU (and especially France) will have us over a barrel in any future negotiations over market access, energy flow, fishing rights, regulatory alignment and so on. Do as we say, the subtext will be, or we shall allow the migrants to flow – in much the same way Turkey blackmails the EU.     

It is commonly claimed that the crisis in the Channel is the inevitable result of Brexit, which locked us out the Dublin Regulations on migrant returns. Yet when we were EU members, only a small a small fraction of our transfer applications under Dublin III were ever successful – just 6% from 2015 to 2020. The result was a net inflow, with 3,961 migrants being relocated from Europe to the UK in this period, versus 1,763 from the UK to Europe. Labour’s policy is essentially an attempt to recreate Dublin, but on even more unfavourable terms for Britain.    

Moreover, by signing up to EU safe and legal routes, Labour’s supposedly humane policy would enhance the pull factors drawing irregular migrants to Europe, notwithstanding that nearly 2,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year. Just getting into the EU would mean a chance of being flown to Britain. And if you end up being taken somewhere else you don’t like – where the native language is not English and where there is less of a diaspora of your fellow nationals for you to link up with – then you can always give the Channel crossing a shot. 

Labour’s policy is thus a total repudiation of the deterrence principle and effectively just moves our border closer to sources of irregular migration. And in a worst case scenario, news of safe and legal routes from Europe to Britain could provoke population movements on a scale similar to the European migration crisis of 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared ‘wir schaffen das’ and flung open Europe’s borders.     

Meanwhile, the idea of speeding up processing of asylum claimants – waving people through, basically – is a red herring. The UK does have an issue with the share of asylum claims that are granted – but the speed is irrelevant, and slow processing may well be a deterrent since claimants cannot work or start a normal life while waiting. All else being the same, speeding up the processing of claims without putting proper deterrent in place is likely to make the UK an even more attractive destination. 

Starmer’s impractical and counterproductive position also rests on a series of problematic assumptions. For instance, there is the notion that being returned to France or Belgium would be more of a deterrent than being relocated to Rwanda. The GDP per capita of Rwanda, which is located 6,000km away in the heart of Africa, is $2,400. French GDP per capita is $46,000. And it’s not a very long journey back to the Channel for an attempt at a more clandestine crossing.  

Then there’s the implicit notion that the problem is not the loss of control of our borders per se, but rather the dangerous nature of the maritime crossings. To return to the burglar analogy, Labour’s policy would be like allowing burglars to walk in through your front door in order to avert the risks of them hurting themselves scaling your drainpipe. So much for the law and order framing.

This bizarre stance in turn rests on the premise that all the public care about is control and that numbers don’t really matter. But in fact, as polling for the CPS report ‘Stopping the Crossings’ found, 60% of all voters think immigration has been too high over the last 10 years; just 9% think it has been too low (and 19% ‘about right’). The Channel crisis cannot be considered in isolation from immigration more broadly: the small boats have become a short-hand for a general feeling of a lack of control.

However, rather than delivering control and the lower levels of immigration that the British public want, Labour’s illegal immigration and asylum policy would have the opposite effect. It’s true that the Tories haven’t exactly done a great job of controlling our borders, far from it. But at least they haven’t given up and surrendered on the principle of control completely. Things could easily get so much worse under Starmer’s Labour.  

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Karl Williams is Deputy Research Director at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.