UK Labour Party’s Proposed Immigration Policies Will Not Ease Border Issues

March 15, 2024 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: ImmigrationUnited KingdomLabour PartyBrexit

UK Labour Party’s Proposed Immigration Policies Will Not Ease Border Issues

If his party wins the next election, Sir Keir Starmer's plans could increase immigration into Great Britain by 250,000.


The United Kingdom is often ridiculed in the American press, and especially The New York Times, for its Rwanda asylum policy—the plan to process asylum seekers in the African country rather than onshore. The goal is to remove any incentive to make the dangerous trip across the channel in small boats. Austria is pursuing a similar policy, and even the CDU in Germany (Angela Merkel’s former party) has been investigating offshore processing with great interest, including in Rwanda, Ghana, and Eastern Europe.  

These policies each tell the story of a disunited Europe facing major immigration issues. For a long time, the issue has been met with a shrug by most of the thinking classes. Factions on both the Right and Left have developed an ambivalence to an issue that their voters overwhelmingly care about. Concerns focus on illegal immigration, the risks of criminal gangs, the strain on housing and public services, as well as the feeling of being under socioeconomic and cultural threat. At a higher level, the very international institutions and conventions that govern the movement of people are being undermined by irregular movement. Malign state actors such as Russia use immigration as a tool to exact political and diplomatic costs on the Western world. 


It is hard to say why precisely many such concerns are left comparatively untreated by academics and politicians alike. There is probably some truth to the explanation that immigration and its consequences are considered a vulgar and low-status issue. Needless to say, in the fields of demography, criminology, and migration, these issues are taken seriously, and its analysts are under no illusions regarding the manifold and wide-ranging consequences of immigration policy. 

Yet change is afoot, surprisingly, from the Left. Britain’s opposition, the Labour Party, led by former human rights barrister Sir Keir Starmer, is now happy to engage with the issue. He has decided that his party now believes that immigration is too high. This may sound trivial, but to have both major parties in agreement on this issue is a genuinely novel development. Starmer has made speeches to businesses about the need to improve their training for British workers and kick their dependency on poaching foreign workers. He has agreed to some of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s immigration reforms, such as minimum salary requirements, without criticism. 

Spurred on by this, a team of academics and researchers worked with the Henry Jackson Society to perform a forensic analysis of Starmer’s likely policy and estimated the potential impact on immigration numbers from the status quo. The forensic analysis showed that the policies would likely increase net migration further by some 250,000 a year

One key reason for the discrepancy in rhetoric and potential outcome is Starmer’s desire for a wide-reaching rapprochement with the European Union. Pundits expect that it will involve some further alignment in an attempt to smoothen the Irish border situation. Others expect that buoyed by a big election win, he may feel emboldened to rejoin the European Customs Union, something he’s promised not to do. At any rate, one key feature of such a deal with Europe would be a return agreement based on principles enshrined at the UN level, whereby migrants can be returned to the first safe country they arrive in, and that country will be responsible for processing any asylum claim, should there be one. 

There are two problems here. The first is that Europe has already signaled, and Starmer has admitted, that such a deal would require the UK to accept a quota of EU migrants, some 120,000 a year, as a quid pro quo. The second is that a returns agreement with Europe is bound in itself to lead to more migrants being returned to the UK than it can return to Europe. In all likelihood, of the tens of thousands illegally crossing to the UK across the channel from France, our report finds that only some 300 will likely ever be returned. 

One explanation for this can be found in what is called the Dublin III Regulation. All EU states are signed up to the protocol, which is more or less identical to a returns agreement. Britain was subject to the regulation until January 2020, when it left the EU, effectively meaning it has a returns agreement with the other EU nations. In the previous year, for instance, the UK made 8502 requests to return illegal immigrants back to Europe, but only 105 were granted, a return rate of 1 percent. By contrast, Britain accepted 38 percent of returns from the EU, taking in several hundred. Comically, this means that a returns agreement would, far from a quid pro quo, be itself a contributor to further net migration. 

Leaving aside the aspiration to rejoin the EU, Starmer will also struggle to hold back left-wing elements within his own party, which favor open borders. It’s hard to say how many Conservative immigration reforms will be repealed in the event of a Labour government. Some are more likely to get the axe than others. For instance, the Conservative government ended the practice of allowing overseas healthcare workers to bring their dependents into the country. Before the reform, a nurse on just over a £20,000 salary could bring a partner and several children and receive welfare, housing, schooling, and healthcare for the whole family. Some 120,000 workers and their dependants (or the taxpayer’s dependents) took this route to the UK last year. Starmer will likely reopen this route. 

The UK finds itself, therefore, finally taking seriously a major economic and social issue that has motivated voters for at least the last two decades. Even being able to discuss the problem in detail is crucial for the health of public research as well as public debate. It is time for the United States to do the same. It seems likely that international conventions must change to adapt to new realities about the movement of people across national borders. Such a change will require American leadership. There is also a pressing need to destigmatize the field and allow academics and researchers to identify and propose solutions to immigration-related problems without fear of professional ostracization. 

We can also draw conclusions from our own paper—that policies like EU returns agreements belong to a bygone age. New realities on the ground will require new solutions, and offshore processing will likely become more prevalent as Europe grapples with them. The good news is that with growing consensus, politics can now start allowing a new range of solutions. Hopefully, the United States will form its own consensus and lead the charge for the reform of international institutions. 

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, OBE, is the Senior Director of Special Initiatives at the New Lines Institute. He is also an Adjunct Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, and a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine. Follow him on X @AzeemIbrahim.