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‘We Need to Hear This from Labour’: Asylum and Immigration Fall Off Party’s Agenda

As Home Secretary Suella Braverman says her ‘dream’ is to see refugees flown to Rwanda, Lauren Crosby Medlicott looks at Keir Starmer’s alternative

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at Britain’s Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool. Photo: REUTERS / Alamy

‘We Need to Hear This from Labour’Asylum and Immigration Fall Off Party’s Agenda

As Home Secretary Suella Braverman says her ‘dream’ is to see refugees flown to Rwanda, Lauren Crosby Medlicott looks at Keir Starmer’s alternative

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At a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said it was her “dream and obsession” to have pictures of refugees deported to Rwanda on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. But faced with such a draconian policy, what is the Labour Party’s response?

When the results of the priorities ballot were announced for the 2022 Labour Party Conference, crucial policies were voted on for debate, among them health, social care, the climate crisis, and the economy. These missed, however, two ‘elephant in the room’ issues – immigration and asylum.

“The Labour Party hasn’t been particularly keen to talk about immigration,” Ana Oppenheim of Labour Campaign for Free Movement, bluntly told Byline Times. Although leader Keir Starmer pledged to defend free movement and migrants’ rights in his leadership campaign, Oppenheim suggested that he has done neither.

While Home Secretary Suella Braverman used the Conservative Party Conference to speak of her “dream”, to one day see the front page of The Telegraph emblazoned with asylum seekers successfully deported to Rwanda, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves appeared to mirror this rhetoric, saying that “12 years of Tory failure” had caused a lack of deportations.

At last week’s Labour Conference, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper briefly claimed that Labour will “make sure the immigration system is fair, firm and properly managed.” She went on to maintain that – unlike the Conservatives – Labour would work with France to prevent small boat crossings across the Channel, crack down on criminal gangs who exploit those wanting to enter the UK, and scrap the Rwanda plan.

Starmer added in his speech that he would control immigration using a points-based system, the UK’s current way of ensuring work, business, and study visas are only awarded to applicants who meet certain criteria.

Both announcements echo messaging that we have heard from the current Conservative Government – aside from the scrapping of the Rwanda plan.

“We’re glad that the party has pledged to scrap the Rwanda plan,” said Oppenheim, but “we don’t really know where the leadership stands on the hostile environment, the future of the asylum system, or what it actually means by a ‘points-based’ system.”

Can Labour offer any solutions for the UK’s broken immigration and asylum systems? And, if so, why isn’t the party talking more about it?

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Intentional Vagueness

“I think [Labour has] been vague for political reasons,” Colin Yeo, a leading immigration barrister, told Byline Times. “There is nothing to be gained by Labour talking about immigration or asylum because as soon as they start talking about concrete policies, they will start to upset someone. I can understand why they are being cagey about it. But there is a lot wrong with the immigration and asylum systems – it would be a good idea to plan ahead for how they can be addressed.”

Oppenheim agreed. “Brexit definitely solidified the idea that to win swing seats, Labour needs to pander to social conservatives and anti-migrant attitudes,” she said.

Whatever the reasons for glossing-over immigration and asylum at the national conference, immigration charities are disappointed with Labour’s lack of action and compliance with the current status quo.

“What we saw at the conference was a missed opportunity,” said Zehrah Hasan of Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. “Starmer trotted out the same tired, old lines about a points-based immigration system, a veiled, but a meaningless allusion to Labour getting ‘tough on migration’. The problem is this vague rhetoric does nothing to resolve the problems caused by this Government’s increasingly cruel and absurd migration policies,” she added.

“We have a hostile environment which is pushing hundreds of thousands of people into destitution, we have an asylum system which is pushing people into limbo for years, and we have one of the most costly and confusing pathways to citizenship in the world. Starmer could have talked about a fair and humane migration system that allows newcomers to settle, work, and thrive in our communities more easily, which sees our towns and cities across the country revived, but he chose to fall back on hostile-sounding nonsense.”

Indeed, immigration and asylum charities have urged the Government to address dangerous Channel crossings by creating safe and legal asylum routes into the UK.  

It has been reported by the Ministry of Defence that 28,592 people have already made the crossing in 2022, more than the total number of those who crossed in all of 2021.

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Channel crossings are dangerous expeditions ventured by desperate people, but the Conservative Government’s primary response has been to crack down on the number of crossings by voting the Nationality and Borders Act into law. The Act, part of the ‘New Plan for Immigration’, proposed to deter illegal entry into the UK and remove people without permission to stay. Critics say that this law will effectively lead to the criminalisation of those seeking asylum in the UK.

Starmer seemed in April to lean towards supporting legal and safe routes for asylum when he called for asylum seekers trapped in French camps to be allowed to apply to the UK. However, we haven’t heard anything on this idea since.

“We need to see a comprehensive vision for safe routes for refugees that provides international leadership, protects the most vulnerable regardless of nationality and draws a line under the shameful policies of this Government,” Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage International, told Byline Times.

“It wouldn’t be hard for the new Labour Government to [create] safe and legal routes,” said Yeo. “But it’s a bit questionable whether that would address small boat crossings.”

In July, Labour released its comprehensive five-point plan to tackle Channel crossings. It included:

“Labour is setting out a serious, practical plan to tackle the gangs and prevent more people dying in the Channel,” Cooper said about the plan.

The Rwanda plan “is a shameful deal that will put lives and risk and represents a fundamental derogation of our duties under the refugee convention,” said Gardiner-Smith. “But this commitment should extend to also scrapping the Nationality and Borders Act too that provides the legal basis for the Rwanda scheme and for the denial of asylum to refugees arriving in Britain.”

She added that: “It’s not just that the deal is unworkable and extortionate, but most importantly that offloading our responsibilities towards refugees to other nations is morally bankrupt, and we need to hear this loud and clear from Labour.”

‘We Need a Radical Transformation’

Even though the Labour leader said in 2020 that he would “defend free movement” and create “an immigration system based on compassion and dignity”, this seems to be divergent from his current plan.

In his party speech last week, Starmer promised that Labour would “make Brexit work”, and said that he would use a points-based system to control immigration. Following Brexit, Conservative ministers revived the points-based immigration system, to prioritise highly-skilled, high-paid workers over lower earners.

“It’s a bit meaningless because it doesn’t tell you what you’re trying to achieve with it or how the points will be awarded,” explained Yeo, about Labour’s approach. “It’s essentially a substitute for an actual immigration policy. A way of deferring questions of what you’re actually going to do. It’s not a commitment to do anything and ignores the fact we already have a points-based system.”

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In the view of Oppenheim, Labour is trying “to invoke being ‘tough’ on immigration and only letting in the ‘good’ migrants.” She argued that the policy signals an immigration system targeted towards the needs of business, not ordinary people.

In his work, Yeo sees families split by immigration rules, impoverished by expensive legal fees, difficulties in accessing citizenship, and the discriminatory effects of hostile environment laws. “Having an underclass of exploited people seems like a really bad bit of social policy. That’s not to do with numbers entering the UK, but the treatment of people already here.”

Labour dedicated a panel discussion at Labour 2022 to the topic of lifting the ban to work on asylum seekers, who are currently forced to live on a measly £40.85 a-week. Other than that, not much was discussed at the conference about how Labour will make life better for asylum seekers.

“What we need is a radical transformation of immigration and asylum policy in the UK so people who move can live free and fulfilling lives, regardless of race, religion or nationality,” Hasan said. “Whether the Labour Party will fight alongside us for this remains to be seen.”

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