Sir Keir Starmer. Photo: The Labour Party

Channel proposal for Labour

On safe third countries and the Channel

How a returns agreement for irregular migrants in the Channel could work, and why it would be in the interest of the new UK government, European partners and anyone in favour of strengthening public support for human rights and refugee conventions.

ESI report: A Channel Plan for London, Berlin and Copenhagen (5 July 2024)

ESI: Stellungnahme zu Migrationsabkommen mit sicheren Drittstaaten (June 2024) – English: Submission to the German Ministry of the Interior on safe third countries

ESI report: A wise court – Rwanda, Safe Third Countries and a Channel breakthrough in 2023 (30 June 2023)

ESI newsletter: Safe Third Countries, Rwanda and a Channel deal (30 June 2023)

Since early 2019, 125,000 migrants have made the Channel crossing from the EU to the UK. In the first half of 2024, over 13,000 have made the crossing. This is a record for this period. If crossings continue like this, it will be many more than 30,000 by the end of 2024.

Standing on the cliffs above Dover, with the Channel stretching out behind him, shortly before the UK election was called, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told an interviewer in May 2024:

“We shouldn’t have people crossing in small boats and arriving in this country. It’s a dangerous perilous journey. It’s a complete loss of control of the borders. It allows the gangs to determine who’s coming to the UK …  I want, like everybody else, to end this vile trade.”

The same day, announcing Labour’s plans for addressing small boat crossings, he stressed:

“Nobody, but nobody should be making that perilous journey. It’s not in anybody’s interest and nobody who’s serious about politics should suggest otherwise. It is not progressive or compassionate to allow people to cross in that way and to lose control of our borders, so we need to bring those numbers down drastically. The question is how we do it.

His answer then, as leader of the opposition, was: Not like the Conservatives. Now, following his resounding victory in yesterday’s UK elections, prime minister Starmer will need to be more concrete. His government will need to show that it has a strategy that can bring those numbers down dramatically. That it can end “this vile trade.“

This is in fact a huge opportunity for a Labour government to address an issue that British voters have consistently wanted tackled, to do so early in its term, to remove a toxic issue from the agenda, and to do so in line with its values and electoral promises, which include respect for the European Convention on Human Rights. To succeed, the new UK government will need unprecedented cooperation with European partners. Starmer recognised this in already in November 2023, when he suggested that a Labour government would seek a returns agreement with the EU, including a “quid-pro-quo” whereby the UK would also take some asylum seekers from the EU.

Let us envisage immediate negotiations between the United Kingdom and a group of interested EU-member states – within days of the new UK government in place – to reach the following unprecedented migration cooperation agreement:

  • A coalition of EU countries agrees to take in anyone irregularly crossing from the EU to the United Kingdom, starting from a set date this summer 2024. The goal of such returns would be to stop all crossings, so that after a few weeks only a few transfers would be needed.
  • The UK authorities would issue inadmissibility decisions to irregularly arriving asylum-seekers reflecting the reality that its partners in the EU are all safe third countries. Anyone who wants to make an asylum application can do so in these countries.
  • After the day X set for returns, agreed between the UK and its European partners, the UK would detain anyone arriving irregularly from the EU, and issue final asylum and deportation decisions within a few weeks.  
  • The goal of these returns is to remove all incentives to try to cross to the UK irregularly, and to do so in compliance with international human rights law. The scheme works if it effectively demonstrates the futility of paying smugglers, getting into boats and risking one’s life.
  • At the same time, the UK would agree to accept annually, for the next four years, a certain number of recognised refugees or registered asylum seekers from these European partners. The target number might be set at 20,000 a year.
  • To achieve this, the UK would set up a visa application scheme under which recognised refugees or registered asylum seekers now in these European partners can apply to get to the UK safely and legally.
  • The countries participating in the agreement set up a Migration Cooperation Steering Committee to monitor the implementation of their respective commitments.
  • The message of such an agreement would be clear: Crossing irregularly is futile and leads to return; but there are safe, legal routes available for those prepared to apply.