People-smuggling should be treated “on a par” with terrorism, Keir Starmer said, as he visited The Hague on Thursday to discuss how a future Labour government would tackle human trafficking gangs.
The Labour leader is meeting officials at Europol, which Britain left after Brexit, in the hope of deepening ties with the EU to “smash” organised immigration crime.
“The first job of any government is national security – protecting the British people from threats that come from here and overseas,” Mr Starmer said.
“The government's failure to tackle the criminal smuggling gangs orchestrating boat crossings is now so profound that I believe it needs to be considered on a par with the other three big security threats we face: climate change, hostile foreign powers and terrorism.”
Mr Starmer sought to emphasise his credentials as former director of public prosecutions during his visit to The Hague with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.
The meeting came ahead of a visit to Montreal, Canada, this weekend for a summit of “progressive” politicians, before a trip to see Emmanuel Macron, the French President, in a breach of French protocol to host an aspiring leader.
Labour has said it will work to reach a new agreement to share real-time intelligence with the EU similar to the Schengen Information System II, a database of terror suspects and immigration offenders which the UK had automatic access to before Brexit.
But he insisted that seeking closer cooperation with the European Union on the migrants crisis did not mean a weakening of his stance on Brexit.
Speaking from The Hague, he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “There is no return to freedom of movement. We have left the EU.
“There’s no case for going back to the EU, no case for going into the single market or customs union and no freedom of movement. I’ve been really clear that that’s the parameter.“I do not accept that that prevents us working with other police units here, with prosecutors here, to smash the gangs in this vile trade."
The party has also vowed to strengthen powers to restrict the movement of people smugglers by making it quicker and easier to obtain civil orders, known as serious crime prevention orders, which are used to target offenders such as terrorists and drug traffickers.
More British officers would be stationed in Europe under the plans, with a “cross-border police force” focused solely on disrupting human traffickers.
In a series of interviews with British newspapers, Mr Starmer vowed to “smash the gangs”.
He said would also seek an EU-wide returns agreement for asylum seekers who arrive in Britain, which may involve a “quid pro quo” of accepting quotas of migrants from the bloc.
Funding for the measures would be redirected from the government's Rwanda plan, which is currently held up in the courts following a series of legal challenges.
The plan is intended to deter Channel crossings by sending some asylum seekers arriving in Britain to the nation or another “safe third country”, but critics have branded it unworkable.
Taking a hard-line stance on immigration crime will be seen as important to convince swing voters that Labour can be trusted to stem the number of Channel crossings, which has passed 23,000 in 2023, in the run-up to a general election expected next year.
100,000 migrants cross the Channel in five years – in pictures
“My Labour government will be twice as ruthless, to smash the gangs and secure British borders,” Mr Starmer said.
“These criminal smuggling gangs are growing fat on the government's failures, while the Tories ramp up empty rhetoric around illegal immigration for cheap headlines.”
Mr Starmer has met several European leaders during his tenure, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and then-Irish premier Micheal Martin.
He could also be eyeing a meeting in the White House in the coming months with US President Joe Biden, whose “Bidenomics” and landmark green subsidy push has attracted admiration from the British Opposition.
A Tory spokesman said Mr Starmer was “opening the door to voluntarily taking even more illegal migrants from the EU”.
“[He] belongs to the same failed politics that won't take the necessary long-term decisions to tackle this issue. He clearly doesn't care about illegal immigration and is trying to take the easy way out. Fundamentally his ideas would do nothing but weaken our tough measures,” he said.
On Wednesday the Home Office said Albanian migrants who recently entered the UK illegally were deported back to their home country within 48 hours. The group of five, aged between 22 and 28 had no right to stay in the UK as economic migrants.
The provisional total of Channel crossings for the year so far is still lower than this time last year, when around 27,000 had already been recorded.
But more than 3,000 have crossed since the start of September, compared to around 2,600 for the first 10 days of the same month in 2022.