Rishi Sunak warns migrants could 'overwhelm' European countries

UK Prime Minister was speaking in Rome, where he met Italian premier Giorgia Meloni and Albania's Edi Rama

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with his Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, at the Atreju convention in Rome. Bloomberg
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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said migrants could “overwhelm” European countries as he warned changes to global refugee rules might be needed to tackle illegal migration.

Mr Sunak was speaking on Saturday in Rome, where he met the leaders of Italy and Albania to discuss how to tackle the problem.

He had warm praise for Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose party, Brothers of Italy, was hosting its annual Atreju event.

Ms Meloni has also sought to lead tough action on migrants arriving across the Mediterranean, and the two leaders have developed a close partnership in recent months.

Mr Sunak also met Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama for talks on illegal migration. A returns agreement with Albania has been repeatedly touted by the government as a big achievement in the broader effort to stop small boat crossings.

The British Prime Minister said “enemies” want to use migration as a “weapon” by “deliberately driving people to our shores to try to destabilise our society”.

“If we do not tackle this problem, the numbers will only grow. It will overwhelm our countries and our capacity to help those who actually need our help the most,” he said.

“If that requires us to update our laws and lead an international conversation to amend the post-war frameworks around asylum, then we must do that.

“Because if we don't fix this problem now, the boats will keep coming and more lives will be lost at sea.”

His comments came a day after one person died and another was critically injured when their small boat capsized in an attempt to reach England from France.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk was among those at the Atreju event, which has been attended by former Donald Trump ally Steve Bannon and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the past.

Mr Sunak and Ms Meloni embraced as the prime minister left the stage, to loud applause from the audience.

The two leaders agreed to co-finance the journey home for migrants stranded in Tunisia, according to an Italian government statement. The accord comes after talks earlier this year aimed at improving co-operation among the two countries.

Touching on their shared admiration of long-serving Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Mr Sunak said that Baroness Thatcher's “radicalism and drive” had to be applied to illegal migration, as he warned: “It is a fundamental tenet of sovereignty that it is us who should decide who comes to our countries and not criminal gangs.

“If we cannot deliver on that, our voters will lose patience with us and the way in which their countries are run and rightly so.”

Mr Sunak, who made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities this year, stressed the need for schemes like the Rwanda plan, which dominated the agenda at Westminster this week.

Mr Sunak overcame dissent from the right wing of his party as MPs approved a new bill to authorise deportations of asylum seekers to Rwanda after rebels abstained from the vote.

Under the plan, people who arrive illegally will be removed to the Central African country.

More than 28,000 people have crossed the Channel this year, compared with about 46,000 for all of last year.

Nearly 300 migrants arrived in the UK in the first crossings in the English Channel for a fortnight, figures released on Saturday show.

About 292 people travelled in seven boats on Friday, December 15, according to the Home Office figures.

Updated: December 16, 2023, 4:23 PM