Labour explores processing asylum claims outside the UK

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Labour is exploring ways to process asylum seekers’ claims outside Britain in a bid to bring down the number of small boats crossing the English Channel, as the main opposition party prepares for a 2024 general election.

Sir Keir Starmer has ruled out keeping Rishi Sunak’s controversial plan to send asylum seekers who arrive in the UK to Rwanda if he wins power. The prime minister this month introduced emergency legislation to get his flagship migration policy off the ground, after the Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful.

But the Labour leader is looking at other methods of deterring people from risking their lives by entering Britain using dangerous and irregular means, according to party aides, including by processing their asylum claims offshore.

The discussions inside Labour — which holds a roughly 20-point lead over the Conservatives in polls — come as shadow ministers finalise their policy proposals for the manifesto in case Sunak calls a May election. 

Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s director of campaigns, told members of Starmer’s shadow cabinet at a meeting this month that they needed to complete their policy work by February 8 in case of a snap vote. 

Most political commentators expect Sunak to call an autumn 2024 election given his party’s poor polling ratings.

But on a trip to Estonia last week, Starmer said he wanted Labour to be ready for the possibility of a surprise election earlier in the year. “We are ready for a general election. I’ve had my whole team on a general election footing for some time now,” he told reporters. 

Most of Labour’s manifesto has already been drawn up through the party’s internal policymaking body, the national policy forum. More than 100 policies have been approved after internal negotiation, including a £28bn a year “green prosperity plan”, various employment reforms and the abolition of the House of Lords.

However, Starmer’s team is expected to hold back a handful of surprise policies for the final manifesto document. 

Finding credible ways to address irregular migration is seen by Starmer as part of an attempt to win back former supporters who switched to the Tories in 2019, when Labour suffered its worst defeat in living memory.

According to official data, 29,090 people had made the Channel crossing as of December 14 2023 — a figure that represents a challenge for Britain’s political leaders despite having dropped from the previous year. 

Sunak in January pledged to voters that he would “stop the boats”, and this month he vowed to work with Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni to review international rules on asylum.

With its strong polling lead, Labour is trying to find a way to address the problem without falling foul of international law or public opinion. 

Starmer has said that he will look at “any scheme that might work” so long as it did not run into the legal hurdles that have so far prevented the Rwanda removal scheme from taking off. 

One senior Labour figure denied a report in The Times that the party was already “drawing up legally watertight alternatives” to the Rwanda scheme, saying that discussions were still in their early stages. “There’s not a policy that’s ready to go or fully fleshed out,” he said. 

One policy that the party is expected to embrace is “upstreaming”, where people could apply for asylum before arriving in the UK, which is how the Ukraine refugee scheme works.


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