Labour plans anti-terror style crackdown on people trafficking

Group of people thought to be migrants brought in to Dover onboard a Border Force vessel in May 2022Image source, Reuters

By Mark Easton

Home editor

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said people-smuggling should be treated “on a par” with terrorism, ahead of talks about a new security deal with Europe.

Sir Keir will seek a provisional agreement with the EU’s policing body, Europol, for any future Labour government.

Any deal to return migrants may require accepting migrant quotas from the EU.

The government argued a returns policy could lead to the UK taking “100,000 illegal migrants” every year.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman wrote on X, formerly known on Twitter, that Sir Keir would “agree to make Britain the dumping ground for many of the millions of illegal migrants that Europe doesn’t want”.

Sir Keir said it was “embarrassing the government is pumping out this nonsense” and that his discussions were focused on sharing information on people smuggling gangs to “stop boats getting in the water in the first place”.

“The government has lost control of our borders, we can see that with the number of crossings over the channel in small boats,” Sir Keir said.

“The only way to stop that is to smash the gangs that are running this vile trade.”

Sir Keir told the Times that Labour would ultimately seek an EU-wide returns agreement. “We effectively exited the returns agreement we were in and have never replaced it,” he said.

Asked if he would be willing to accept the “quid pro quo” of migrant quotas in exchange for a deal, the Labour leader said: “That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe.”

When pressed by reporters on Thursday morning, Sir Keir would not give a number of asylum seekers he would be happy to take in under a deal.

He also denied that negotiating for closer co-operation with the EU was a weakening of his stance on Brexit, but said closer co-operation with the EU was needed.

Speaking from The Hague, he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “There is no return to freedom of movement. We have left the EU.”

Stopping boats

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says “stopping the boats” is a key priority and passed a law earlier this year with that in mind.

In total, 45,755 migrants crossed the Channel in 2022, the highest number since figures began to be collected in 2018. So far this year, 20,101 people have made the crossing, according to the latest figures.

In an article for the Sun newspaper, the Labour leader accused the government of creating a “criminal industry” out of people traffickers who organise small boats for migrants to cross the channel.

“Just because we are outside the EU, doesn’t stop us leading in Europe,” Sir Keir wrote.

The Labour leader hopes a deal will include a replacement for the EU’s live police data and intelligence-sharing system.

He is outlining his plans for a cross-border police force to combat smuggling gangs at a meeting with senior officials from Europol on Thursday.

Labour has already committed to abandon government plans to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda, and instead invest in more resources for the National Crime Agency, which carries out operations against traffickers.

Brexit saw the end of the UK’s seat on the board of Europol, and access to shared intelligence databases.

The agreement between the EU and the UK replaced some of the previous arrangements, including a new surrender agreement so that serious criminals can be moved between the two territories.

There was also a new agreement on the exchange of criminal record information, fingerprints, and number plate data.

But senior police have raised concerns that the EU’s criminal database – the Schengen Information System (SIS II) – was a faster way of sharing police information than its post-Brexit replacement, known as I-24/7.

The government has committed to improving other shared databases in the coming years.

Sir Keir said: “The reality is that Britain’s borders and immigration system are being run by a hostile and growing foreign power, criminal smuggling gangs on the continent.

“My Labour government will be twice as ruthless, to smash the gangs and secure British borders.”

Conservative sources have accused Labour of being disingenuous, saying the plan to tackle the small boats crisis with increased law enforcement would not be able to solve it.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said a returns agreement based on proposed EU migration rules would mean “Britain will be forced to take more than 100,000 illegal migrants from the safety of Europe each year, disregarding the will of the British people to cut numbers and stop the boats”.

Mr Jenrick said: “Sir Keir is utterly unprepared to take the tough but necessary decisions to stop the boats, taking the easy way out which will not fix the problem. For all their political stunts, Labour remains the party of unlimited and uncontrolled immigration.”

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