Can Labour fix the UK’s asylum system?

The challenge for Keir Starmer is to combine control and compassion in efforts to tackle dangerous boat crossings

Labour leader Keir Starmer is pictured in Paris, France alongside the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves.
UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives in Paris with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy ahead of his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss channel crossings. Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

Every month, hundreds of migrants risk their lives, making the perilous journey across the English Channel in small boats to seek refuge and asylum. Relatively few make it to the UK, but those who do face squalid living conditions in hotels and uncertainty over whether they will ever be allowed to settle in the country.

Such is the scale of the crisis that politicians from all parties are under pressure to solve the problem or risk losing their positions come the next general election. But there are contrasting opinions between the political parties and within them about what the problem they’re trying to solve actually is. 

The principle underlying the Conservative government’s policy is deterrence. It holds that no one would make the journey if they knew they could never claim asylum in Britain. Beyond the ethical implications of such a stance, it has failed on a purely practical level. 

More than 20,000 people have crossed the Channel so far in 2023. In March, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to remove within weeks anyone who arrived by such means — a promise that has proved impossible to keep. The government’s flagship arrangement with Rwanda to automatically deport those arriving in the UK illegally has been mired in delays and faced a significant blow in July, when the court of appeal prevented the plan from being enacted. It pointed out that the scheme breached Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhuman treatment.

Civil society voices, including prominent figures and organisations such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Refugee Council, see the danger posed by small boats as the primary problem, not the number of crossings. Numerous commentators and NGOs have pointed out that the UK takes a relatively low number of asylum claims in comparison to France and Germany.

Faith leaders and charities working with asylum seekers believe that focus should be placed on ensuring safe, legal routes to the UK, which would also mitigate the risk of people traffickers exploiting asylum claimants.

While all these voices wish to see an end to the use of small boats, their conflicting approaches have resulted in a situation where there is no solution in sight. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer now believes his party has a viable solution.

Starmer used a recent trip to meet officials from Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, in the Hague to articulate his claim to a compassionate but controlled approach to the system. First, he committed to processing asylum claims and clearing the enormous backlog of cases so as to reduce the spiralling costs of asylum accommodation. Second, he pledged to further criminalise those involved in people smuggling. Third, he promised to recruit more than 1,000 Home Office case workers — a 50% increase on current staffing levels. Starmer is also seeking a deal with EU neighbours to return asylum seekers whose applications are rejected, presumably to the first safe country reached.

In doing so, he has “leaned in” on a contentious issue in his party. As a result, Labour now leads on an issue which the Conservatives have usually considered a strong political card for them. That Labour is now ahead in the polls should undermine the populist assumption that the public will only vote for parties willing to compete in an auction over who can be toughest on migrants.

The Conservative party alleged that UK-EU talks under Starmer amounted to a pledge to take 100,000 more asylum seekers each year by joining a new EU quota system. Labour has said that is a misrepresentation, that it is actually seeking a one-off UK-EU deal, perhaps modelled on the pre-Brexit Dublin agreement, which ended when the UK left the EU. That would be a modest deal, unlikely to dramatically reduce Channel crossings. 

The real difference is that Labour proposes to scrap the government’s Rwanda plan, part of a flagship policy of Sunak’s time as PM. While the country is divided on the plan, most people, according to polling data, believe that scheme will not work even if it is implemented. Labour’s main critique is that the policy is an expensive gimmick. While more than 20,000 people have crossed the Channel this year, Rwanda lacks the capacity to take more than 1,000 asylum seekers per year. 

The bigger clash may be in Labour’s commitment to hear outstanding asylum claims of individuals already in the UK, who cannot be legally removed. The government’s Illegal Immigration Act seeks to ban asylum claims from individuals who arrive without permission, but since so few ways to arrive legally exist this simply creates a catch-22 situation. In practice, this refusal to entertain petitions to remain will be almost impossible to enforce. It is against the law to refuse people categorically when there is no prospect of removal, unless the UK ignores the European Convention on Human Rights.

The fierceness with which the asylum debate is playing out now suggests that it will still be a central issue in election year. Settling the matter of how the country should play its part in accommodating refugees will help to determine how much of its historic legacy of providing safety to people fleeing war and poverty is allowed to remain.

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