Rishi Sunak warns refugees are being used as a weapon to overwhelm Britain

Malign states are ‘weaponising’ illegal migration by ‘deliberately driving people to the shores of Britain’, Rishi Sunak has warned. And in some of his toughest language to date, the Prime Minister warned the UK would be “overwhelmed” without urgent action to tackle the problem.

Mr Sunak made his remarks during a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome, during which the pair said their two nations would jointly finance a plan to return migrants in Tunisia to their home countries. Mr Sunak used the gathering to issue a stark warning of the threat posed by illegal migration, as he suggested that changes to global refugee rules might be needed.

In a speech to the Atreju event organised by Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, Mr Sunak said radical solutions, such as his Rwanda plan, were needed to protect countries’ borders. Saying that “enemies” want to use migration as a “weapon”, he added: “If we do not tackle this problem, the numbers will only grow. It will overwhelm our countries and our capacity to help those who actually need our help the most.”

During the day-long trip to Rome Mr Sunak and Ms Meloni also held talks with Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, another ally in their efforts to crack down on illegal migration. Number 10 said that after the talks Mr Sunak and Ms Meloni had agreed to co-fund a project which would see the two countries “promote and assist the voluntary return” of migrants currently stuck in Tunisia.

Tunisia neighbours Italy just across the Mediterranean and attracts many migrants from several African countries who begin their journey to Europe there.

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During his speech, Mr Sunak stressed that he was ready to “update out laws” and prompt “an international conversation to amend the post-war frameworks around asylum” if necessary. He continued: “Because if we don’t fix this problem now, the boats will keep coming and more lives will be lost at sea.”

Insufficient action would result in surging growing numbers which which in turn would “overwhelm our countries and our capacity to help those who need our help most.”

Mr Sunak referenced unnamed “malign states” – but it is likely he was in part at least referring to Russia, given Finland has accused Moscow of deliberately sending Middle Eastern migrants into the European Union in order to destabilise the bloc.

The rhetoric comes as hardliners on the Tory right push Mr Sunak to block interference from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the UN Refugee Convention amid efforts to stop Channel crossings. He had warm praise too for Ms Meloni, as Downing Street confirmed that the UK would sign up for her “Rome Process” alliance of Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa countries aimed at tackling the root causes of migration.

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PM Rishi Sunak says he’s ‘confident’ about Rwanda legislation

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Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk was among those at the Atreju event, which has been attended by former Donald Trump ally Steve Bannon and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban in the past. Mr Sunak and Ms Meloni embraced as Mr Sunak prime minister left the stage, to loud applause from the audience.

Touching on their shared admiration of long-serving Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, he said “I can only guess what first attracted Giorgia to the strong female leader who was prepared to challenge the consensus, take on stale thinking and revive her country both domestically and on the international stage.” Baroness Thatcher’s “radicalism and drive” had to be applied to the issue of illegal migration, Mr Sunak claimed.

He said: “It is a fundamental tenet of sovereignty that it is us who should decide who comes to our countries and not criminal gangs. “If we cannot deliver on that, our voters will lose patience with us and the way in which their countries are run and rightly so.”

The speech came in a week in which Mr Sunak moved a step forward in his efforts to revive the Rwanda scheme, declared unlawful by the Supreme Court. Despite speculation of a major rebellion by Tory MPs, the Prime Minister comfortably won a key Commons vote on legislation designed to insulate the scheme from legal challenges.

Stopping small boat crossings in the Channel is one of the prime minister’s main priorities. Some 292 people made the crossing in seven boats on Friday, according to Home Office figures published on Saturday.

It was confirmed a migrant died and another was left in a critical condition during an incident on Friday. Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said it was “not too late” for the prime minister to ditch the Rwanda plan, accusing him of “ramping up the rhetoric but failing to get a grip”.

He said: “After a week in which the Prime Minister has failed to convince many of his own backbenchers that he has a workable plan to end dangerous boat crossings, we hit a new grim milestone – far from stopping the boats, on Rishi Sunak’s watch this year 600 boats have crossed. “It’s not too late to change direction.”

In a statement, Downing Street said that Mr Sunak, Ms Meloni and Mr Rama “agreed on the vital importance of tackling the scourge of illegal migration and the shared sense of urgency that they feel on this issue. They agreed that innovative structural solutions, like the UK’s Rwanda policy, were necessary to break the model of people smugglers and regain control of movement into and across Europe.”

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