Sir Keir Starmer is facing a revolt from his supporters over Labour’s stance on refugees, amid claims that the party is “turning a blind eye” to desperate people trying to make it to the UK across the Channel.
Labour members were angered after the front bench criticised the government’s “incompetence” in dealing with migrants arriving by dinghy, instead of defending their right to claim asylum in Britain – which is protected by the UN refugee convention.
Home secretary Priti Patel has said she could send in the royal navy to intercept the boats, after Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage accused a group of people arriving on a Kent beach of an “invasion”.
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Open Labour, a soft-left grouping which welcomed Sir Keir as leader, and the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, which worked with him on Brexit, are among critics who say the party’s position on the issue is unacceptable.
An open letter with 300 signatures, including MPs Kate Osamor and Clive Lewis, calls on “the Labour leadership, our parliamentary representatives and our trade unions to join us in condemning the government, and campaigning for an immigration system that advances the rights of all working people – not divides us by the colour of our passports”.
A separate petition on the issue organised by left-wing group Momentum also calls on Sir Keir “to end his silence on the scapegoating of refugees and migrants” and has gathered about 4,000 signatures.
Critics of the leadership’s stance point to Sir Keir’s leadership campaign pledge to “defend migrants’ rights”, which included a promise to call for the closure of immigration detention centres like Yarl’s Wood. It said as leader Sir Keir would push for an “immigration system based on compassion and dignity”.
They also highlight the party’s policy on refugees, set at its 2019 conference, strongly endorsing free movement and migrants’ rights.
“While the most recent crisis with migrants arriving to the UK shores was used to distract from government failure elsewhere, Labour cannot turn a blind eye, pretend it isn’t happening, or vaguely plead with the government for more ‘competent’ border violence,” said Alena Ivanova from Labour Campaign for Free Movement.
“The Labour Party should speak with the voices of working class people regardless of where in the world they were born. Labour must demand safe routes for migrants, and full rights and dignity for all. We know what our policy is, we voted on it democratically last year. It is high time we started making the case for it to the public.”
Keiran O’Neill, co-chair of Open Labour, said: “The lack of compassion from the Tories and the media as we see whole families risk their lives to cross the Channel is just disgraceful.
“There is a proud tradition in our movement and across these islands of welcoming refugees. Labour must stand up for that tradition and for these people seeking safety. We simply cannot and must not turn our backs on the most desperate people on this planet.”
Labour’s shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch said last week that the government had displayed a “lack of grip and competence” and called on the government to “urgently provide detail” of how they would be addressing the issue
This week the party tweaked its line, with shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds saying the government’s response to the situation in the Channel was “lacking in compassion and competence” but going little further on specifics. Sir Keir himself this week described the death of a child in the Channel as a “tragedy” and called for a “compassionate response”.
Momentum’s co-chair Andrew Scattergood said: “As a firefighter, my job is to rescue people whose lives are in danger. To see Labour turning a blind eye to the demonisation of people fleeing war, persecution, poverty and climate catastrophe, is unacceptable.
He added: “Keir Starmer pledged during the leadership election to defend migrants’ rights. We are asking him to keep his promise by ending his silence on this scapegoating and stating clearly that no one is illegal.”
Mish Rahman, a candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee backed by the party’s left wing, said: “If elected to Labour’s National Executive Committee, I and the other five Grassroots Voice candidates will hold Keir’s feet to the fire on clear and unambiguous policies in support of refugees and migrants’ rights, making clear that no one is illegal.
“This must include providing safe and legal routes for people seeking asylum, including significantly increasing the number of refugees the UK resettles each year, ending the ban on asylum seekers’ right to work once in the UK, ending indefinite detention and closing detention centres like Yarl’s Wood.”
A Labour spokesperson said: “The Labour Party has been outspoken in calling on the government to take urgent action to end the humanitarian crisis in the English Channel. This includes urging the home secretary not to militarise the situation and to find a meaningful and humanitarian resolution, with our international partners.”