Vulnerable paying price for illegal migration, says Rishi Sunak

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Rishi SunakReuters

The global system to tackle illegal migration is “not working”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said.

He made the comments ahead of a meeting of the Council of Europe, a gathering of European nations, the EU and the European Court of Human Rights.

The summit in Iceland was convened to discuss aiding Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

But the PM pledged to use the meeting to advance the UK’s plans to detain and remove illegal immigrants.

Downing Street says Mr Sunak is seeking international co-operation to end illegal migration and establish a “functioning” global asylum framework.

Mr Sunak held a series of one-on-one meetings outside the main summit to discuss illegal migration – including with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

Downing Street says the pair agreed a new working arrangement to “strengthen co-operation” between the EU and UK in order to tackle cross-border crime and people trafficking.

The arrangement would see British agencies work alongside Frontex, the EU border force, on “critical operational and strategic challenges including the situation in the Channel”, a Downing Street spokesman added.

Mr Sunak has made stopping small boats from crossing the Channel one of his priorities, and earlier this year the UK agreed to give France £500m to fund more patrol officers and a new migrant detention centre.

Last year, a record 45,000 migrants made the journey across the English Channel. So far this year, nearly 7,000 people have made the crossing.

The summit in Reykjavik – the fourth in the council’s history since it was set up in 1949 to protect democracy in Europe – will focus on Ukraine and particularly how Russia can be held to account for breaches of international law.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky will join the Council of Europe meeting virtually.

Speaking ahead of the summit, Mr Sunak said: “It is very clear that our current international system is not working, and our communities and the world’s most vulnerable people are paying the price.

“We need to do more to cooperate across borders and across jurisdictions to end illegal migration and stop the boats,” he added.

Labour have argued Mr Sunak’s plans to tackle illegal migration will make things easier for people traffickers.

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said Mr Sunak’s comments were “pure hypocrisy”.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) shake hands at the end of a joint news conference on a new trade deal covering Northern Ireland.


Mr Sunak has also spoken to the president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Síofra O’Leary about the court’s rule 39 – the process that enabled the court to block a flight deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda last year.

At the summit, international leaders are expected to “reconfirm their commitment to the Common Human Rights protection system and in particular the [ECHR] as a cornerstone of our protection system,” according to Iceland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Thórdís Gylfadóttir.

“The time we have, we are not using to reform certain articles of the court,” she added.

Migration debate

Mr Sunak’s trip comes as migration tops the political agenda at home.

Mr Sunak’s flagship Illegal Migration Bill, which places a legal duty on the home secretary to detain and remove those arriving in the UK illegally to Rwanda or another “safe” third country, has been repeatedly challenged during its progress through Parliament.

Last week, the bill was criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury who argued it would not stop small boat crossings and would do “great harm” to the UK’s reputation.

The bill will go through detailed scrutiny in the Lords in the coming weeks, but in the Commons, former prime minister Theresa May argued the bill would leave more people in slavery in the UK, although she and fellow former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith did not push their proposed changes to a vote.

Labour have previously labelled the bill a traffickers’ charter, which they say will make victims of people smuggling less likely to come forward, as they risk being deported and banned from the country.

“If he really believes countries should tackle trafficking he should stop pushing through legislation at home which will make it even harder to prosecute traffickers,” Ms Cooper said.

Introducing the bill in the Commons, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said illegal arrivals were “in flagrant breach of our laws and the will of the British people” and if the government did not respond it would “betray the will of the people we have been elected to serve”.

Court decision

Meanwhile Mr Sunak, and the other leaders attending the summit, are being asked to increase funding for the European Court of Human Rights.

Ms O’Leary has said she will be using the meeting in Iceland to urge leaders “to commit further resources to the court”.

At present, it is having to rely on voluntary financial contributions from member states to pay the salaries of some of its staff.

Ms O’Leary said an institution that was “absolutely vital to peace, stability and the way we live” needed sustainable financing.

As of January this year the court had a backlog of more than 74,000 applications pending before it. More than 26,000 of those cases concerned Russia or Ukraine.

And the finances of the Council of Europe, which funds the European Court of Human Rights, will be on leaders’ minds in Reykjavik.

Russia was one of the five biggest financial contributors to the Council of Europe. In 2022, it was due to pay more than 30m euros towards the organisation’s total budget of 335m euros.

But Russia’s payments stopped after the country was excluded from the Council of Europe following the invasion of Ukraine last year.

Since then other countries have made up the shortfall since then. In 2022 the UK contributed and extra 3.27m euros.

For 2023 the UK has agreed that its total contribution will be just over 40m euros, about 6m euros higher than in 2022. France, Germany and Italy have all seen their payments rise by a similar amount.

Mr Sunak, along with the other national leaders attending in Reykjavik, are expected to reaffirm their commitment not just to the values upheld by the Council of Europe but also the need to ensure the organisation is financially sustainable too.

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