Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Thursday proposed striking a migration deal with the EU if the party wins the next election, prompting the Tories to claim that Britain would become a “dumping ground” for asylum seekers.
Starmer’s plan for a returns accord with Brussels stoked controversy, with the Conservatives attacking his willingness to take part in an EU scheme for burden-sharing on migration, allegedly weakening Brexit in the process.
The opening up by Labour of a political divide on migration is a risk for Starmer, but some experts said that while his solution had flaws, it could be more workable than trying to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Home secretary Suella Braverman was quick to denounce Starmer’s plan, saying he would “agree to make Britain the dumping ground for many of the millions of illegal migrants that Europe doesn’t want”.
Starmer’s plan would involve Britain sending clandestine migrants back across the English Channel, but the quid pro quo would mean the UK accepting asylum seekers who entered the EU across the Mediterranean.
“Britain will be forced to take more than 100,000 illegal migrants from the safety of Europe each year,” claimed immigration minister Robert Jenrick.
That is a Tory estimate based on EU rules setting migrant quotas for member states, weighted for Britain’s population size and economic strength.
Starmer said the government was talking “nonsense”, adding that any migration deal would be subject to a negotiation and that Britain would not be bound by any EU scheme because “we are not a member of the EU”.
However the prospect of Starmer becoming UK prime minister does open up possibilities for EU-UK co-operation unthinkable under a Conservative government.
Starmer was on Thursday at the headquarters of Europol, the EU’s crime agency, at The Hague, to discuss greater police co-operation on tackling people traffickers operating on the Channel.
The Labour leader said he wanted to “smash” people smuggling gangs, and would use “serious crime orders” to freeze assets and restrict their movement.
Starmer confirmed he would not stick with Rishi Sunak’s plan to deport to asylum seekers to Rwanda. The prime minister has proposed the move in response to increasing numbers of migrants coming across the Channel in small boats.
Colin Yeo, a barrister with expertise in asylum law, said the idea of an effective UK-EU returns agreement hinged on the nature of any deal, and whether it could even be negotiated.
But he said: “It certainly looks more plausible than removing tens of thousands of people to Rwanda.
“You potentially end up with fewer refugees arriving in the UK than you do at the moment. And you would know who they are in advance. They would already have been ID’d — you end up with a much more controlled system.”
The government’s Illegal Migration Act bars undocumented migrants from ever claiming asylum in the UK, and places a legal onus on the Home office to detain such people and remove them to Rwanda or a safe third country.
The Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank warned last month that this could lead to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people being trapped in legal limbo in the UK, in need of support, at a potential extra cost to the taxpayer of up to £6.4bn a year.
Another key part to restoring a semblance of control over the border will be international diplomacy.
Some Labour politicians and civil servants point to the 2002 agreement between David Blunkett, then home secretary, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French interior minister, which led to the shutting down of the refugee camp at Sangatte near Calais from which migrants were crossing into the UK in the backs of lorries.
As a result of that agreement the UK agreed to take 1,200 of the refugees at the camp, and France 3,600.
Sir David Normington, permanent secretary at the Home Office between 2005 and 2011, said a migration deal with the EU could be a “game changer”.
“Clearly it would mean accepting some number of asylum seekers in return for an agreement to return others,” he added. “I think it does come down partly to the numbers and also to whether any kind of returns agreement with the rest of the EU can be made to work effectively.”
Normington said that while any deal with the EU might not change the total number of asylum seekers coming to the UK, it could alter public perceptions around policing of the border.
“If those things can be done it would make it look as if there’s some control. There is very little control at the moment,” he added.
As well as scrapping the Rwanda policy, Starmer has also pledged to reverse the central tenet of the Illegal Migration Act — barring undocumented migrants from claiming asylum. This would allow consideration of the cases and the possibility of accepting some asylum seekers and returning others.
According to a senior EU diplomat, the option of a migration deal between the UK and the bloc was discussed at a ministerial meeting between Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK last year.
The diplomat said that such a deal “would have to be balanced between the EU and the UK”, including in terms of the numbers of people exchanged.
But with Starmer not yet in office, any discussions with Labour were “premature”, they added.
The European Commission said it had no mandate from member states to negotiate a returns agreement with the UK.