'Safe routes not the answer': Starmer rejects opening new passages from other countries for migrants

What are Labour's plans to reform the 'broken' asylum system? ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana explains

Words by Elisa Menendez, Westminster Producer

Sir Keir Starmer has insisted safe passages are not the answer to tackling the small boats crisis as he doubled down on commitments to scrap the "gimmick" money-wasting Rwanda policy.

The Labour leader today unveiled his plans to tackle the asylum backlog and crack down on people smuggling gangs, which include deploying MI5 officers as part of a new Border Security Command to halt crossings and expand counter-terror power.

He told ITV News that even if the Rwanda policy proves to act as a deterrent in the future, Labour will still scrap it, adding: "I don't think it will work."

Sir Keir made it clear that "where somebody has no right to be here in the UK, we will return them" to their native country as part of plans to reform the "broken asylum system".

Put to him by ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana that it would be incredibly difficult to return asylum seekers to war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea, Sir Keir pointed to the Afghanistan exemption scheme the government had pledged to set up.

'I don't think safe routes is the answer to the vile trade that is being run to put people into small boats,' Sir Keir tells Anushka Asthana

"We have to process the claims and where there are clearly people who shouldn't be here, we have to return them," he said.

"The absurdity of the situation under this government is we've got a 100,000 people who are not being processed. That means they cannot be returned.

"And they are here in Travelodges, in hotels being paid for by the taxpayer. And that is going to go on for a very, very long time."

Sir Keir made it clear earlier that it is right the UK protects people from persecution - but he would not commit to increasing the number of safe routes from other countries to stop people making dangerous and expensive journeys to get to safety.

"I don't think safe routes is the answer to the vile trade that is being run to put people into small boats, I actually think breaking down the gangs is," he told ITV News.

"But look, where there have been conflicts in places like Ukraine, then yes, we Labour and the government were calling for and put in place schemes to allow people to come to this country from Ukraine. The same in relation to Afghanistan and Hong Kong."

Sir Keir earlier accused Rishi Sunak of "magical thinking" and using "sticking plasters" rather than viable, long-term solutions to tackle small boat Channel crossings as he stressed the importance of a rules-based asylum system.

The funding for Labour's plans will come from money that was being spent on the Rwanda scheme, starting with £75 million.

Sir Keir announced the plans in Deal - the seat of new Labour MP Natalie Elphicke, who sensationally quit the Tories earlier this week citing migration as one of her key issues for abandoning her party.

The MP - who has long been considered a right-winger of the Tories and has criticised Sir Keir for being "soft" on migration - said on Friday Labour would provide “a fresh approach” to the issue “that puts at its heart a commitment to border security”.

Ms Elphicke's defection caused controversy among Labour MPs and has caused many to question how far Sir Keir is willing to go to welcome others with seemingly opposing views. Asked by ITV News if the likes of Nigel Farage would be welcome, Sir Keir said he's "the last person who would want to join Labour" but extended an invite to all "reasonably minded" MPs looking to join.

Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana brings you analysis on the backlash Sir Keir Starmer has faced after letting Natalie Elphicke cross the floor and where the Labour leader would draw the line, and is Nigel Farage welcome?

Ms Elphicke's Deal and Dover seat is on the frontline of the small boat crossings and Sir Keir delivered the speech as the Home Office revealed around 211 people were detected crossing the English Channel on Thursday.

The cumulative number of arrivals by small boats in 2024 now stands at a provisional total of 9,037.

This is 35% higher than the total at this point last year, which was 6,691, and 16% higher than the total at this stage in 2022, which was 7,801.

Sir Keir called the Rwanda law "an insult to anyone's intelligence" and listed it as one of many examples of what he described as the Tories' "gesture politics", saying it will remove less than 1% of small boat arrivals.

The policy is not a deterrent to illegal immigration, Sir Keir said, but processing claims and sending people back to their countries of origin is.

He also reiterated his commitment to scrap the government’s Rwanda policy “straight away”, saying it was a “gimmick” he had no interest in pursuing.

But asked what would happen to any people deported to Rwanda in the coming months, he said Labour was “not interested in repatriating people”.

In a message to smuggling gangs, he said: “These shores will become hostile territory for you – we will find you. We will stop you. We will protect your victims with the Border Security Command. We will secure Britain’s borders.”

What has Labour pledged?

  • The creation of a new Border Security Command, which would be modelled on the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism set up the last time the party was in power.

  • A new Border Security Commander - a former police, military or intelligence chief – who would report directly to the home secretary.

  • It would hire hundreds of additional specialist investigators, intelligence agents and cross-border police officers, split across multiple agencies, including the National Crime Agency, MI5, Border Force, CPS International and more.

Sir Keir promised Labour will end the Rwanda policy permanently and establish a border security command that will be an “elite force, not a Cinderella service”.

“We will restore serious government to our borders, tackle this problem at source and replace the Rwanda policy permanently,” he said.

Among a Labour Government's objectives would be a new partnership with Europe to access real-time intelligence. He said he has already been to the Hague to push for a new security pact.

He said stronger powers are needed to bring smuggling gangs to justice, including powers to shut off internet access, close their bank accounts and trace their movements using intelligence agency information.

“We use the term small boats, but the boats are not for the most part that small,” Sir Keir said. “The gangs now use dinghies on a scale way beyond anything you would see for legitimate recreational activity.”

Asked about providing a deterrent, Sir Keir said speeding up the processing of asylum claims and returning unsuccessful applicants to their home countries would be the most effective way of deterring people from making the journey, rendering it “a pointless exercise”.

He also said he would seek to negotiate a replacement for the Dublin Agreement to allow asylum seekers to be returned to European countries, but ruled out joining an EU scheme.

James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, said Labour had “no plan to stop the boats” and would “create a haven for criminal gangs”.

He said: “Labour’s announcement would make the UK the asylum capital of the world.”

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