Election Debate: Three key UK immigration takeaways

A snap election has been called for 4 July, election season is upon us which means that the political campaigns are underway and the debates have begun. Immigration, perhaps second only to the economy, is the most salient issue of the upcoming UK snap election. So much so that it has been dubbed as the ‘immigration election’ by the Reform Party leader.

On 4 June 2024, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer went head to head in first their political debate of the election campaign. Immigration was a key topic in the election debate.

In this snapshot article, we lay out 3 key immigration takeaways from the debate:

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer agree that immigration is too high

During the election debate, Sunak and Starmer were asked about their plans to regain public trust given the string of broken promises surrounding immigration in the UK post Brexit.

Both Sunak and Starmer agree that net migration figures in the UK are too high.

Sunak argued that the mass rise in migration represents a global challenge. He continued that under his leadership, the Conservative Party is Britain’s best option at regaining control of UK borders.

In reaction to Sunak’s statement, Starmer blamed the Conservative Party for the “record high levels of net migration. Starmer also described Rishi Sunak as the “most liberal Prime Minister” that the UK has ever had on migration which is surprising given Sunak’s fervent support for tough immigration policies such as the Rwanda Scheme.

The facts about immigration in the UK

Former Conservative Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May vowed to slash net migration down to “tens of thousands”. Fast forward to the present and these changes have failed to come to fruition. In fact, 14 years after the Conservatives went into coalition, net migration is more than two and a half times the 2010 figure and is double that of 2015, the year in which the Conservatives formed a majority government.

Net migration to the UK has remained well above historical levels since 2019. The post Brexit era has presented new trends in UK migration figures.

Immigration figures in the UK reached a record high of 672,000 in 2022. However, this was predominantly driven by an increase in non-EU citizens coming to the UK. This rise occurred in tandem with EU nationals leaving the UK and choosing other countries to travel to. Prior to the EU referendum, migration figures were primarily driven by EU nationals due to freedom of movement.

Why have net migration figures increased?

A core reason for the rise in non EU nationals migrating to the UK is because of labour demand. Labour demand has been the main driver of growing UK immigration. Non EU migrants have filled vacancies left by EU migrants. These roles are predominantly in agriculture, hospitality, transport, healthcare and care work. These are services that native workers are not able to willing to do.

Migrant workers are essential to the UK’s public sector, particularly the NHS. In 2023, 35% of all doctors working for the NHS were immigrants, up from 27% in 2012. 27% of all NHS nurses were immigrants, up from 14% in 2012. Between 2017 and 2022, the share of NHS nurses with non-UK nationalities rose from 20% to 45%. The vast majority of them are from outside the EU.

The UK’s increasing reliance on migrant labour represents a global pattern. As the population ages, the country will grow increasingly reliant upon migrant labour to fill much needed vacancies.

Recent Conservative immigration policy such as the 5 Point Plan will likely continue if Sunak wins the election. However, Labour are yet to provide a clear and concise alternative to address the concerns of the electorate, the needs of Britain’s labour market and aging society.

According to a Poll taken by IPSOS in February 2024, 69% of the public say that they are dissatisfied with the way that the government is dealing with immigration. These figures mark the highest level of government dissatisfaction on immigration since 2015.

Despite their agreements on immigration being too high, both Kier Starmer and Rishi Sunak differ on their solutions to the issue.

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer disagree about the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership Scheme

Sunak reaffirmed his commitment to the UK-Rwanda Scheme as core method to reduce net migration during the election debate. He also stated that if elected in July, migrants will be detained and flights to Rwanda will go ahead immediately. Sunak also vowed to continue on the Conservative Party’s commitment to stop ‘small boats’ from entering the UK.

Starmer on the other hand, labelled the Rwanda Scheme as a “vile trade agreement that seeks to make a fortune by sending vulnerable people across the channel to Rwanda”. Starmer also called the Rwanda scheme an “ineffective gimmick”. In response to this, Rishi Sunak pressured Starmer to provide an alternative to the scheme.

The scheme has faced mass criticism from a variety organisations such as UNCHR and The Public Accounts Committee. Criticisms center around its inhumane treatment of refugees, its ineffectiveness and its costs.  In a highly critical report, The Public Accounts Committee said the government’s accommodation plan had fallen “woefully short of reality”. So far, the government has spent £310m on the Rwanda scheme, however, no flights have taken off.

How much does the UK-Rwanda Scheme cost?

The financial implications of the Rwanda Scheme are also a cause for concern. According to an investigation by The National Audit Office (NAO) carried out in 2024, the overall cost of the scheme stands at more than half a billion pounds.

The development funding comprises a fixed cost of £370 million, plus an additional £120 million once 300 people are relocated to Rwanda. An additional £20,000 will be paid to the development fund for each person that is relocated.

In addition to payments into Rwanda’s development fund, the Home Office will send per-person payments to Rwanda to cover asylum processing, operational costs, and an integration package for each relocated person. The integration package includes accommodation, food, education, language training, and professional development. These payments last up to five years and total £150,874 per person.

If Rishi Sunak loses the election in July and Labour wins, Starmer has vowed that he will scrap the Rwanda scheme “right away”. However, due to Sunak’s agreement, the UK will pay the fixed cost of £370 million over a 5 year period regardless of who is elected in July.

The full financial impact of the Rwanda policy remains unknown. This is for two mains reasons. Firstly, the government has not released official statistics. Secondly, the scheme has not yet ‘taken off’ so to speak, therefore its real costs cannot be measured. The NAO’s report does not include wider costs of implementing the Rwanda scheme however, it provides an efficient starting point of analysis for understanding the wider financial implications of the scheme.

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer disagree about the role of the UNCHR in influencing UK immigration policy

Rishi Sunak once again reaffirmed his commitment to the UK- Rwanda Scheme despite it being at odds with the UNCHR. The UNCHR found that new UK-Rwanda treaty and Safety of Rwanda Act are incompatible with international refugee law.

Sunak stated that if elected, he would continue to push forward the Rwanda Scheme despite the UNCHR to prioritise the UKs safety against what he labelled a “foreign court”.

Sunak also claimed that the bill, now the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration Act 2024) would protect vulnerable migrants and refugees from smugglers and that safe routes would only be discussed once UK borders have been controlled.

Keir Starmer on the other hand, stated that he would not pull out of the UNCHR. He stated that he wants the UK to be a respected player on the global stage and believes that pulling out would damage the UK’s global reputation essentially making it a “pariah who does not agree with international law.” On the topic of safe routes, Starmer said that he agrees safe routes citing the UKs safe routes with Afghanistan and Ukraine.

The UNCHR have been in staunch opposition to the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership since its announcement in April 2022. The UNCHR believes that the UK-Rwanda will shift responsibility for making asylum decisions and protecting refugees. Externalizing asylum obligations poses serious risks for the safety of refugees. The arrangement proposes an asylum model that undermines global solidarity and the established international refugee protection system. It is not compatible with international refugee law.


Written by Mya Alghali

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