Rishi Sunak puts Rwanda migrant plan at heart of election battle

Conservative leader says deportation flights would start in July if he wins general election

A drive to 'stop the boats' carrying illegal migrants over the English Channel is at the heart of Rishi Sunak's election campaign. AP
Powered by automated translation

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak drew election battle lines on migration on Thursday, vowing deportations to Rwanda will begin within weeks if voters keep him in power.

Mr Sunak used the first full day of campaigning for Britain's July 4 election to cast himself as the candidate for those who "believe in stopping the boats".

But critics seized on new figures showing migration added 685,000 people to the UK's population last year to lay "chaos and failure" at the door of Mr Sunak's Conservatives.

English Channel migrants will not be sent to Rwanda before the election but everything is in place "so that flights can go in July", Mr Sunak said.

"If I’m re-elected as Prime Minister, I’m going to get those flights off," he told broadcasters in a round of campaign interviews.

The Labour opposition describes the Rwanda plan as an "expensive gimmick", instead promising a new crackdown on smugglers and agreements with France and Europe.

"Rishi Sunak clearly does not believe in his Rwanda plan," Labour leader Keir Starmer said on his first campaign stop on Thursday.

"I don’t think he’s ever believed that plan is going to work, and so he has called an election early enough to have it not tested before the election."

Labour's shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the figures for legal migration show "total Tory chaos and failure on immigration" despite promises to bring numbers down.

The provisional 685,000 figure is down from a record 764,000 in 2022 but still high by historical standards and was described as "appalling" by Reform Party right-wing figurehead Nigel Farage.

Home Secretary James Cleverly countered that the drop showed "the plan under Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives is working".

Mr Sunak meanwhile leapt on the Rwanda dividing line with Labour to tell voters "if you care about that issue, I’m the one that’s going to deliver on it for you".

"I’m going to get that deterrent going and that’s how we’re going to stop the boats. Keir Starmer is not going to do that."

A drive to "stop the boats" was one of five key pledges that Mr Sunak asked voters last year to judge his premiership on but the Rwanda scheme has been bogged down by court battles.

Tory ministers have also tried to bring down legal migration by tightening visa rules for students and their families.

Visa applications have fallen and there are signs of higher emigration by non-EU nationals, but it is "too early to say" if net migration is on a downward trend, said the Office for National Statistics.

The number of illegal Channel crossings fell last year but Mr Sunak conceded they have risen again after a surge in arrivals from Vietnam.

Mr Sunak said officials have "put the preparations in place" for Rwanda flights by booking planes and airfields, hiring case workers and detaining people ready for deportation.

One migrant voluntarily left the UK for Rwanda under the scheme last month, in what ministers hailed as a partial win.

The prime minister touted that several European countries are looking into similar models to Britain's Rwanda scheme.

The emphasis in the EU has generally been on processing claims in third countries rather than permanent deportations there.

Mr Sunak says there is "no way to stop this problem" unless it is "clear that if someone comes to our country illegally they won’t be able to stay and they will be removed".

Labour recently set out an immigration policy that includes more intelligence sharing with Europe and agreements to return people to France.

It is pledging to hire more staff and create a new returns unit to "clear the Tory asylum backlog" and save money on hotels where migrants are housed.

Former prosecutor Mr Starmer would also appoint a former police, military or intelligence chief as head of a new border security command, Labour says.

Migrants attempt to cross the Channel from France - in pictures

It says the command would "use counter-terror style tactics" to take on the human-trafficking gangs behind the Channel crossings.

The Rwanda plan is "an extortionately expensive gimmick rather than a serious plan to tackle dangerous boat crossings", the party says.

Parliament passed a bill last month declaring Rwanda a safe country, moving to override objections by the UK's Supreme Court.

The current parliament – elected in 2019 with a near-landslide Conservative majority – will be formally dissolved on Thursday.

Voters will go to the polls on July 4 with any new government normally taking office immediately, unless there is a need for coalition talks.

UK general election campaigning - in pictures

Updated: May 24, 2024, 7:06 AM