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Sunak says UK will not send asylum seekers to Rwanda before election

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak portrayed himself as a leader with a clear plan this week when he called for a general election. That didn’t include the fact that he carried an umbrella during a speech at 10 Downing Street, when Sunak was drenched by a spring shower, which prompted a scathing headlines.

The City Morning Post said, “The streets are flooded,” and the Daily Mirror shouted, “Swamp and disappear.” “The situation is only going to get worse,” the Daily Telegraph said.

On Thursday, the first day of the six-week campaign, the discord spread from symbolism to substance. Sunak said his government’s signature political project – giving asylum seekers one-way flights to Rwanda – would not start before voters go to the polls on July 4.

In an interview with the BBCMr Sunak cited Rwanda’s policy in contrast to the opposition Labour Party, which he accused of having no plans to stop asylum seekers making the dangerous crossing of the English Channel in small boats.

“That’s the choice in this election,” the prime minister said.

But when he was asked if the first deportation flights would take off after the election, he said yes, adding, “If I’m re-elected.”

For analysts and opposition leaders, Sunak’s admission heralded the end of a policy in which he may have invested more political capital than any other. Since the government first floated the idea of ​​sending asylum seekers to Rwanda in 2022, the policy has weathered repeated legal challenges, fierce criticism from human rights groups and weeks of heated debate in parliament.

Labour, which leads Sunak’s Conservatives by more than 20 percentage points in opinion polls, has vowed to block the Rwanda plan if it wins power. Instead it is proposing closer cooperation with France and using counter-terrorism powers to disrupt criminal gangs smuggling migrants across the Channel.

“Intercepting the ships is, if not Sunak’s first, then most important political commitment,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “The Conservatives’ failure in this area is clear and Labor is not shy about pointing it out.”

Senior Labor official Yvette Cooper said Sunak’s comments showed the policy was “a sham from start to finish”, although she and others acknowledged the government could implement a surprise move before July 4 flight. The prime minister had promised that Rwanda would have air flights by July after the law passed parliament in April.

The intense maneuvering over Rwanda shows how immigration has become a fraught issue in an election year in Britain, as in the U.S. For Mr Sunak, the English Channel holds some of the same symbolism and dangers as the U.S. southern border does for President Biden.

This is partly due to the surge in immigration to the UK since the 2016 referendum to leave the EU. Most of the arrivals are legal immigrants: doctors and nurses from South Asia or graduate students from Africa. But a small, though persistent, number are asylum seekers. Tabloids published photos of rafts landing on Kent beaches. Populists such as Nigel Farage have warned of an invasion of England’s southern coast.

On Thursday, the Office for National Statistics reported that net legal immigration (arrivals minus departures) reached 685,000 in 2023. That’s down more than 10% from the record 764,000 in 2022. But the figure is still three times higher than in 2019, when the Conservatives won the last election on a platform promising to reduce immigration.

“Seven hundred thousand is a large number for a relatively small country,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. “Rightly or wrongly, some people see it as a problem.”

Many of those who support lower immigration levels are former Labor voters in the Midlands and north of England who switched to the Conservatives in 2019 because of the party’s promise to “get Brexit done”. Labor has set out to recapture these voters, and success will go a long way toward securing a durable parliamentary majority.

That is why Mr Sunak has put so much energy into pushing the Rwanda plan. He has made it part of his job to stop the boats. five basic goals, but he has yet to achieve that goal. On Tuesday, Sunak traveled to Austria to meet Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, partly to share the stage with Nehammer, who has lauded Rwanda’s policies and extolled the virtues of sending asylum seekers to other countries.

But polls show the Conservatives’ credibility on immigration has declined as immigration numbers continue to rise. Two years after the Rwanda policy was first proposed under then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it has become notable mainly for the litigation and costs it triggered. It is expected that by the end of 2024, the cost of immigration to Rwanda will soar to 370 million pounds, equivalent to approximately 469 million U.S. dollars.

“Even voters who liked Rwanda’s policy saw it as a costly failure,” said Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester.

While Labor has struggled with immigration in past elections, Professor Ford said the issue was less serious this time around because most Labor supporters didn’t care. Labor leader Keir Starmer is cautious on immigration, partly to avoid disappointing voters in the Midlands and the North. But he rejected the government’s plans for Rwanda without hesitation.

Professor Menon said Sunak’s obsessive emphasis on Rwanda, by contrast, showed the narrowness of the electoral strategy being pursued by the Conservatives. Some analysts even suggested that Sunak called the election four months early to avoid the small ships that normally cross the English Channel in the summer.

“He’s talking about not just an issue that people don’t care about, but an issue that people widely believe he has failed on,” Professor Menon said.

For Sunak, Rwanda policy has become a religion, sometimes putting him in embarrassing positions. In February, broadcaster Piers Morgan challenged Sunak to bet £1,000 ($1,271) that his government would not let anyone fly to Rwanda before the election.

“Look, I want to get people on planes,” Mr Sunak replied, before shaking the hand Mr Morgan extended. The prime minister later said he was surprised by this, adding, “I’m not a gambling person.”

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