Starmer says he meant no offence to Bangladeshi community over deportation comments

Sir Keir Starmer has said he did not intend to cause offence to the Bangladeshi community after he singled out the country during a debate about immigration.

The Labour leader said Bangladeshis have made a "massive contribution" to the UK economy - after his comments sparked such a backlash that one Labour councillor in London resigned.

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Speaking specifically about people who come to the UK illegally, Sir Keir said during a debate hosted by The Sun newspaper: "So on the first few days in government, I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll put the staff back in the returns unit, I'll make sure we've got planes going off, not to Rwanda, because that's an expensive gimmick."

He then singled out the example of Bangladesh when asked where migrants could be returned to under Labour's plan.

"The number of people being returned to where they came from, has dropped off by 44% under this government," Sir Keir said.

"At the moment people coming from countries like Bangladesh are not being removed because they are not being processed."

The comments were criticised by members of the Bangladeshi community, as well as Labour Party members.

Stepney Green Councillor Sabina Akhtar, deputy leader of Tower Hamlets Labour group, resigned from the party saying Sir Keir had insulted "my Bangladeshi identity".

Labour election candidate Apsama Begum, who is the daughter of Bangladeshi migrants, said she "will never stand by and let migrant communities be scapegoated".

Defending the comments on Thursday, Sir Keir said he was trying to give an example of a safe country where a returns agreement is in place - but people aren't being sent back because their asylum claims are not being processed.

He told broadcasters: "The reference in the debate the other day was an example of a country that is considered safe as far as asylum is concerned, and one of the countries that's actually got a returns agreement with us, and that is actually a good thing where both we and Bangladesh can be proud of.

"I certainly wasn't intending to cause any concern or offence to any Bangladeshi community here."

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He said he values the relationship and the contribution of the Bangladeshi community in Britain, adding: "They've made a massive contribution to our economy, to our culture and to our country. That's why there's always been a longstanding and strong relationship between Labour and the Bangladeshi community here.

"It's why my first trip as a Labour MP was to Bangladesh, where I saw for myself the strength of the country, the hospitality and warmth of the country. I've got many Bangladeshi constituents in my own constituency who I've been working with for many years, and I want to build on that in government."

Immigration has been a wedge issue on the election campaign, with Rishi Sunak insisting his stalled Rwanda plan will get off the ground eventually but Labour saying it is an "unworkable gimmick" and they will scrap it.

The party wants to divert £75m to a new "border command" force that will focus on "smashing criminal gangs", and hire 1,000 more caseworkers to create a "Returns and Enforcement Unit" to address the fall in asylum removals since 2010.

Asked by reporters today if that plan would also mean accepting people who come via illegal routes, Sir Keir said: "When people have no right to be here, they will be removed. Where a claim succeeds obviously that is an asylum claim that has succeeded.

"But at the moment there is a 100% success (rate) in the sense that anyone who is here under this government is staying here for life, being paid for by the taxpayer.

"That is not a sustainable or sensible asylum policy. It is an asylum policy that is utterly broken under this government."