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Immigration is a big issue ahead of the U.K. elections, too

In this drone view, an inflatable dinghy carrying migrants makes its way across the English Channel to Britain, on May 4.
Chris J. Ratcliffe
/
Reuters
In this drone view, an inflatable dinghy carrying migrants makes its way across the English Channel to Britain, on May 4.

LONDON — Britain's two major political parties have continued to focus their campaigning on taxation policy and the economy ahead of elections early next month, but for many British voters, immigration remains a major concern — with record high numbers of migrants arriving legally and irregularly.

This will be the United Kingdom’s first general election since leaving the European Union more than four years ago. At a time when immigration has been central to electoral politics elsewhere in Europe, Brexit's implications for immigration policy remain a topic British policymakers seem loath to acknowledge.

During last weekend's European parliamentary elections, anti-immigrant sentiment was one of several factors that helped far-right parties in several countries — including France, Germany and Italy — win more seats in the European legislature.

Over several years starting around 2015, supporters of Brexit hailed its promise as a process that would provide Britain with greater control over its immigration policy.

But in recent years, politicians have learned that leaving one of the world's largest economic blocs has not only damaged the U.K. economy, it has proved far from a panacea for the country's immigration challenges either.

For more than two years, powerful pictures and often tragic stories of thousands of people making dangerous boat crossings from France, with several drowning incidents, have affected the British public.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s solution to stop those boat crossings is a plan to deport irregular migrants to Rwanda, in East Africa, for their asylum claims to be processed there. But after two years of trying and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, multiple court decisions blocked the policy as unlawful, no flights to Rwanda have taken off yet, and Sunak has acknowledged no flights will do so before election day on July 4, and only then if he wins the election.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reacts as he answers journalists' questions at the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on April 22, regarding a plan for Britain to transfer migrants to Rwanda.
Toby Melville/Pool / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reacts as he answers journalists' questions at the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on April 22, regarding a plan for Britain to transfer migrants to Rwanda.

His opponents in the Labour Party, which is leading in opinion polls, have already made clear they will scrap the plan if they win power.

One prominent Brexit cheerleader, Nigel Farage, also supports stringent policies for potential asylum-seekers. He recently announced he's running for Parliament with the relatively new right-wing Reform U.K. party — which is now close to the governing Conservatives in the polls.

"We should deport people who come to Britain illegally, and we used to," he said during a recent interview with the BBC, in which he pointed to a significant fall in the number of annual deportations, which he considers to be a failing deterrent for would-be migrants. "Once people know that if they come to Britain illegally, they absolutely will not be allowed to stay, they will stop coming.”

Political opponents say Farage refuses to acknowledge publicly the problem is — at least in part — rooted in Brexit. But he’s not alone.

In April, an editor at British television’s ITV News asked Foreign Secretary David Cameron, a Conservative who was prime minister from 2010-2016, whether he would have pushed through the Rwanda plan if he had himself still been the premier. “We had a totally different situation," he responded, "where you could return people directly to France. Now, I'd love that situation to be the case again, that's the most sensible thing."

But that option is “not available at the moment,” he continued. "It's simply not possible." The editor asked whether it was because of Brexit. He demurred, responding it was "because of the situation we're in."

The clip went viral, as an implied admission that Brexit had somewhat failed to allow Britain to “take back control," as its boosters promised it would.

Prior to Brexit in 2020, Britain's membership of the EU allowed the country to return asylum-seekers to other EU member states they had traveled from, including France, under a pact known as the Dublin agreement. "Its principal aim is to prevent asylum shopping — so asylum-seekers picking and choosing the destination country," explains Peter Walsh from the Migration Observatory, a research center at Oxford University. "That provided a mechanism for us to return asylum-seekers to the European continent, but when we left the EU, we also left that system."

Walsh says recreating a similar set of multilateral agreements has proved difficult since Brexit, with Europeans disinclined to help. That includes France, where the U.K. government has spent tens of millions of dollars helping to fund French police patrols of beaches to disrupt the people trafficking that helps people travel on rubber dinghies the several dozen miles of water to southern England.

Coast Guard, ambulance staff, border agents and police escort asylum-seekers who landed on Dungeness beach in southern England. The asylum-seekers are taken to a station of the British charity, RNLI, for a medical check and search, before boarding a bus headed to Dover for processing, on Nov. 22, 2023.
Andrew Aitchison / In Pictures via Getty Images
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In Pictures via Getty Images
Coast Guard, ambulance staff, border agents and police escort asylum-seekers who landed on Dungeness beach in southern England. The asylum-seekers are taken to a station of the British charity, RNLI, for a medical check and search, before boarding a bus headed to Dover for processing, on Nov. 22, 2023.

Britain's status as an island also makes patrolling its borders — paradoxically — more complicated, Walsh says, since pushing migrant arrivals back at sea is considered too dangerous. Brexit threw up other immigration-related challenges too: making it much harder for European citizens to move to Britain for work, and vice versa. That meant many more non-Europeans have arrived in the U.K. with work permits to fill job vacancies, forcing legal migration numbers to record highs."

People who think migration is a really important issue — it has increased in the last year," says Mariña Fernández-Reino, an academic who researches British public attitudes to immigration. She says public anger over immigration has subsided substantially and attitudes have softened since the 2016 Brexit referendum, when what she calls "restrictionist views" were very common.

But her research also indicates that while politicians rarely succeed in swaying people's minds over the subject of immigration — since many hold entrenched beliefs on the subject — it is possible for political leaders to mobilize people who hold opinions, one way or another, as was the case with Brexit. And during periods such as elections, that potential to mobilize can prove very powerful.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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