UK election: Why is immigration a key battleground?

An inflatable dinghy carrying migrants passes a French navy vessel as it heads towards England in the English Channel, Britain, May 4, 2024. REUTERS/Chris J. Ratcliffe

An inflatable dinghy carrying migrants passes a French navy vessel as it heads towards England in the English Channel, Britain, May 4, 2024. REUTERS/Chris J. Ratcliffe

What’s the context?

From Brexit to small boats, immigration is rarely out of UK headlines. Where do Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and rival Keir Starmer stand?

LONDON -Immigration is one of the hot issues in Britain's July 4 election with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition leader Keir Starmer both pledging to cut legal migration, but deeply divided over a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Official data shows net migration - legal arrivals minus departures - stood at 685,000 last year, down from a record high of 764,000 in 2022, but still more than treble the number in 2019.

Most of these arrivals have come on visas to work or study, but voters have increasingly voiced fears that current numbers are putting pressure on housing and public services and are affecting social cohesion.

Concerns have also grown over thousands of people arriving illegally on Britain's shores after crossing the English Channel in small boats.

The Labour Party's Starmer - widely tipped to become the next prime minister - says he will dump Conservative leader Sunak's flagship plan to send those who arrive illegally to Rwanda under a deal with Kigali that critics say is costly, unworkable and unethical.

Here is a look at recent immigration trends and the pledges made by Sunak and Starmer.

Why are numbers high?

Immigration concerns played a role in Brexit, Britain's withdrawal from the European Union in 2020, which ended the free movement of workers from EU countries.

Brexit and the introduction of a new immigration system have contributed to a significant change in migration patterns.

With many sectors - including health and social care, hospitality and construction - dogged by labour shortages, Britain still needs foreign workers, but many now come from places like India, Nigeria and Pakistan instead of the EU.

One factor behind the spike in numbers is a visa scheme introduced in 2022 to attract overseas workers to plug huge staffing gaps in Britain's ailing care sector. Many of these workers also brought dependents to Britain.

A large number of non-EU nationals also come to study at British universities. Levels have jumped since travel restrictions were lifted after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other arrivals since 2021 include several hundred thousand people from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong who have been welcomed under humanitarian programmes.

Despite the recent spike, the Migration Observatory says levels of migration over the past few decades are on average broadly similar to other high-income countries.

What about the small boats?

One of Sunak's priorities is to end the arrival of small boats, which have brought more than 120,000 people across the English Channel since 2020.

The crossing, often undertaken in overcrowded, inflatable dinghies, is extremely risky and the International Organization for Migration estimates at least 177 migrants have died in the Channel since 2018.

Sunak wants to send people entering Britain illegally to Rwanda. But critics say many people arriving on these boats have the right to claim asylum as they come from countries like Afghanistan.

More than half of the asylum claims decided since 2018 have been successful, according to official data.

Labour says the government's Rwanda scheme would remove less than 1% of arrivals and is extortionately expensive. The cost could exceed 2 million pounds ($2.55 million) per deportee, according to parliament's spending watchdog.

But Sunak says the deterrent effect would stop many people from crossing and yield long-term savings.

Britain's asylum system costs more than 3 billion pounds annually, according to the Home Office. A large part of that covers hotel accommodation for people awaiting a ruling on their claims.

What does Sunak plan to do?

Sunak has pledged to start regular deportation flights to Rwanda from July. The plan has been stymied by legal challenges, but recent legislation has cleared the way for deportations to begin.

Other Conservative promises include cracking down on people smugglers and signing more deals like one already agreed with Albania to fast-track returns to countries deemed safe.

Sunak has also vowed to halve annual migration and says he would introduce a legal cap on numbers to be set by lawmakers every year.

The government introduced new rules to slash numbers this year - which Sunak says would have stopped 300,000 of last year's arrivals from coming. 

Measures include stopping care workers and most international students from bringing dependents and increasing the salary threshold for a "skilled worker" visa.

What does Starmer plan to do?

Labour says it would scrap the Rwanda plan and use the money to target the people smuggling gangs behind the crossings. 

Starmer's election promises include the creation of a new Border Security Command with hundreds of specialist investigators and the use of counter-terrorism style tactics to crush the gangs.

Starmer also wants to create a new Enforcement and Returns Unit to fast-track the return of illegal migrants from countries deemed safe and hire more case workers to clear a huge backlog of asylum cases.

As of March 2024, there were 86,460 asylum claims awaiting an initial decision.

Starmer told a TV election debate this month that his party would consider processing claims in a third country if doing so did not breach international law.

Labour has not given much detail on its plans to cut legal migration but says it will reduce Britain's reliance on overseas workers by bolstering domestic skills training in sectors like health and social care, and construction.

What do some of the other parties say?

Reform UK, led by arch Brexiter Nigel Farage, wants to freeze "non-essential" immigration. It says it would also pick migrants off boats and send them back to France, but it is unclear how it would persuade France to take them.

At odds with most parties, the Scottish National Party (SNP) says there is not enough migration, at least for Scotland.

Stephen Flynn, the leader of the SNP in the House of Commons, says migrants are needed to help fill labour shortages and would boost the wider economy.

The Liberal Democrats, traditionally Britain's third party, would cancel the Rwanda scheme, invest the savings in clearing the asylum backlog and create new humanitarian travel permits allowing asylum seekers to travel to Britain safely. 

The Green Party would also end the Rwanda scheme, abolish immigration detention and give asylum seekers the right to work while their claims are assessed.

($1 = 0.7857 pounds)

(Reporting by Emma Batha; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)

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