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Keir Starmer is wrong to pick on Bangladesh

Sir Keir Starmer debates Rishi Sunak last night. Credit: Getty

June 27, 2024 - 11:55am

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has landed himself in hot water with members of the British-Bangladeshi population this week. The trigger was an interview with the Sun in which he singled out Bangladesh as a country to which migrants needed to be sent back from the UK, prompting the resignation yesterday of Stepney Green Labour Councillor Sabina Akhtar and strong condemnation from Left-wing Labour candidate Apsana Begum, who called it “dog whistle racism”.

But why is Starmer specifically referring to Bangladesh in this context? Last month, an agreement signed by the UK and Bangladesh to tackle illegal migration went largely unnoticed. It aimed to more quickly return failed Bangladeshi asylum seekers, foreign-national offenders and individuals who have overstayed their visas. Bangladesh’s long-serving Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has stressed her zero-tolerance approach to illegal migration.

However, raising Bangladesh in isolation when it comes to illegal migrants and visa overstayers opens a can of worms for Starmer, with relations already strained among many traditionally Labour-supporting, mainly Muslim Bangladeshi-heritage voters who are disillusioned with his position on the Israel-Gaza war. When it comes to irregular migration in the shape of small-boaters crossing the Channel in the early part of 2024, Bangladesh does not even feature in the top 20 countries of origin, while the likes of Vietnam, Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, and Kuwait do. Historically, Bangladesh is not a common country of origin associated with small-boat Channel crossings either.

In terms of those applied through the in-country asylum system in 2023, Bangladeshis do rank fifth in terms of nationality (4,300) but trail both Indians and Pakistanis (5,300 each). During her time as Home Secretary, Suella Braverman also raised the point that the largest group of people who overstay their visa are Indian migrants, sparking a furious reaction from Indian government ministers and officials. In early 2023 Indians represented the third-largest cohort of small-boat Channel migrants, with 1,192 arriving in total last year.

None of this is to say that there are no migration or asylum issues involving Bangladeshi nationals. In the year ending December 2023, 33,000 Bangladeshi nationals arrived in the UK, with 11,000 entering on visas only to lodge claims for permanent residence in their first 12 months. People are right to question the credibility of asylum claims. After all, Bangladesh is not only a strategically important Commonwealth partner which takes an especially tough stance on religious extremism, but also a rapidly-developing economy with a strong emphasis on female social empowerment.

If Starmer wanted to use an example of a relatively safe Commonwealth country whose nationals are notably represented in recent flows of small-boat illegal migration into the UK and asylum claims, as well as being associated with high rates of overstaying their visa, the obvious country to single out — based on the numbers — would be India, not Bangladesh.

There is the possibility that the PM-in-waiting is wary of alienating elements of the British-Indian population ahead of the UK general election, as well as the “Modi 3.0” government in New Delhi. After all, he would have seen the level of grief Braverman received, both at home and abroad, over her intervention on Indian migrants. He also has to think of the optics of singling out India given his rival Rishi Sunak’s heritage. This may seem trivial, but anything can be turned against you in an election campaign.

However, the ongoing national debate on immigration and asylum requires courage. That means raising inconvenient truths which may not go down well with strategically significant electoral groups at home and diplomatic allies abroad. Starmer should take note. If he wants to solve the small-boats crisis, he will have to accept that he can’t please everyone.


Dr Rakib Ehsan is a researcher specialising in British ethnic minority socio-political attitudes, with a particular focus on the effects of social integration and intergroup relations.

 

rakibehsan

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Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
28 days ago

Indeed, resolving this issue does require courage. A quality notably lacking in any prominent UK political leader in this election…..bar one. And he is well aware that he can’t please everyone and probably doesn’t care.

carl taylor
carl taylor
28 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Do you think Farage lacks courage in this regard (I note the ‘bar none’ in your comment)? This is a genuine Q. Are there doubts that Farage is insincere or incapable of resolving illegal migration?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
28 days ago
Reply to  carl taylor

It was bar one, nor bar none!

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
28 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

It was bar one, not bar none!
(Why is editing posts no longer possible on Unherd?)

Vivien Bedani
Vivien Bedani
28 days ago

Similar agreements must be made with other countries eg Vietnamese coming to work in dodgy nail bars etc should not be allowed to stay. We are only colluding with the smugglers if we allow it. Some consistency across European states is needed, otherwise if migrants are refused asylum in one country, they just move to another country to avoid returning home. There is much work to do. If it becomes known that not everyone gets to stay, it may not be worth paying the smugglers. At the same time we should help the countries of origin so people do not feel the need to move

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
28 days ago
Reply to  Vivien Bedani

Exactly. A reciprocal agreement with countries of origins is a good idea.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
28 days ago
Reply to  Vivien Bedani

“Some consistency across European states is needed”
You are totally correct. This is vital. The rate of approvals is far higher in the UK than, say, France, despite the fact that the UK has the same criteria for asylum as other European countries. The difference is the way that the criteria are assessed. In the UK, if it is obvious that the applicant is lying and has been coached by a friendly lawyer, those assessing the case have been told to ignore this.
Even if the next government does start deporting failed asylum seekers, that will not stop them coming. We must also have an assessment system that is no more generous than the French system.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
28 days ago

Thank you for the context.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
28 days ago

This is a big part of the problem with politics today. Maybe, just maybe – political leaders should stop worrying about offending people and get stuff done. You can’t account for every micro aggression so stop trying. Simply pointing out Bangladesh doesn’t imply it is the only problem country. If Britain starts bombing Bangladesh, then they have a legit beef. Before then STFU.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
28 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The people who fund Britain’s political parties aren’t interested in their leaders getting stuff done. Not this stuff, anyroad.

They want sources of cheap migrants to deliver food and packages and work warehouses. If it isn’t to be the EU, then Bangladesh or India are fine.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
28 days ago

It might be noteworthy that the social democrats in Denmark have adopted a hard line migration policy which is – contrary to most of Western Europe – actually put into practice. Although they have been going a bit back and forth on foreign workers as far as I understand. On economics they have actually turned further to the left trying the reestablish typical welfare state principles.
They have been the biggest party for a while now.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
28 days ago

If the author is of Bangladesh origin it would have helped if he had stated so. His outrage seems a bit over- defensive, and some statements a tad exaggerated – certainly the present regime there is less fundamentalist than Pakistan,but it is certainly no beacon of religious secularism. It’s called an ” Islamic Republic” and has over the last few years seen terrible crimes against Buddhist, Hindu and Christian minorities, including destruction of places of worship and murderous attacks
On the topic of Indian immigration it would be interesting to know the regional break-up of the immigration from India. One suspects it would be mainly from the Punjab( Sikh migrants), Goa( Roman Catholic) and possibly Southern India( Kerala). One of the reasons for this trend is the high degree of community networking from these areas which enables easy immigration.
Many middle class parents are tired of being pestered by their kids about studying in the UK at much higher rates than what would be available in India. These kids merely want to stay on in the UK and other Western countries much to the dismay of the parents.The latter would be happy if Western governments stopped this liberal admissions policy of students from out here merely as they cross- subsidize the universities; and then apply for citizenship and find willing allies in a permissive government. Most of them are devastated also as the homes and property/ businesses they have built up to bequeath to the children then have to be sold off, as the offspring have managed to ” stay on” .
Back in my day, only those with excellent academic credentials could even apply for UK varsities. We were never allowed to work even the most mundane jobs on campus( library, cafetaria etc) though that extra bit of cash could have saved one from the starvation one often underwent as the scholarship funding the course (for which one underwent several rounds of tough interviews and screening)was meagre.
Yet, oddly I find it was a much better system than the over- indulgent excess swinging to the other extreme today.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
28 days ago

Immigration turns any society from a high trust low crime kind like Japan, to one where there is little or no trust and endless strife and emnity is a foregone conclusion.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

Most Bangladeshi immigrants, legal or illegal, should be unwelcome because of their refusal to integrate and many (most?) are devotees of a particularly fundamentalist form of Mohamedanism.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yes, many are unwilling to integrate. I have Bangladeshi friends who are not.

I have said to one that he should sincerely consider why he is here (as he is so often offended.)

He believes he should evangelize for his mosque, tho he finds this unrewarding as the townsfolk have very little interest in his brand of Islam.

And the local Christian churches are also very active, scooping up the few in the town who are interested in religion.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
27 days ago

Pakistan kicked out two million Afghans from Pakistan back to Afghanistan. Was that racist? No. If Britain kicks two million Pakistanis out of Britain back to Pakistan, is that “racist”? Again, no.