The Tory minister ramped up the party’s rhetoric in the Commons on Tuesday – arguing that Labour’s strategy was to “wave in” migrants and “force the British public to grudgingly accept mass migration”.
Campaigners and opposition MPs accused Mr Jenrick of “hostile” and “dangerous” language – warning that it could have damaging consequences for vulnerable people in the asylum system.
It follows home secretary Suella Braverman’s recent speech in which she warned that Britain faces a “hurricane” of migrants – and claimed some asylum seekers were pretending to be gay to gain refugee status.
The latest comments came as Mr Jenrick announced that the number of hotels used to house migrants will be cut by 50 over the next three months.
But Labour attacked the “utter lack of ambition” and pointed out 350 hotels would still be in use this winter. The opposition also said the Tories were “wasting ever more taxpayers’ money” on alternatives like the Bibby Stockholm barge rather than tackling the backlog of asylum claims.
In a feisty Commons exchange, Mr Jenrick attacked Sir Keir Starmer for saying he would scrap the plan to send small boat arrivals on one-way flights to Rwanda. “Even if we were securing our borders, [Sir Keir] would scrap it and wave people into our country,” claimed the immigration minister.
“He also said on his fabled trip to Europe he would strike a new deal with the EU which would bring thousands into the country – the new towns that he announced at the Labour conference would be filled with illegal migrants.”
Last month the Labour leader said was prepared to do a deal which would involve the UK taking a quota of legal asylum seekers who arrive in the bloc, in exchange for the ability to return people crossing the Channel. But Sir Keir insisted that Tory claims it would let in tens of thousands were “nonsense”.
Responding to Mr Jenrick’s Commons outburst, the Refugee Council’s Tamsin Baxter said: “We would urge parliamentarians to steer clear of hostile and misleading rhetoric, which can have dangerous consequences for vulnerable people in the asylum system.”
The Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael told The Independent: “This is just nasty party dog-whistle politics. This unhelpful rhetoric is designed to distract people from the fact that this government has completely lost control.”
He added: “Instead of seeking to blame others for their failures, this Conservative government should focus on fixing the asylum system they broke and clearing the record high backlogs.”
Rachel Goodall, head of asylum services at Refugee Action, said: “It’s deeply disturbing that government ministers continue to use far-right and racist language when talking about people who have fled some of the world’s worst regimes and warzones.
“The dehumanising of minority and protected groups so they can be targeted with hostile and cruel policies can only draw frightening parallels from history and it must stop now.”
Ms Braverman was accused of pushing “dangerous” dog-whistle politics by claiming that some asylum seekers were pretending to be gay to get refugee status. It sparked fury among LGBT+ campaigners and Tory moderates, some of whom are understood to have complained to the party’s chief whip.
Some moderates have told The Independent they fear another “lurch to the right” from Mr Sunak – urging the PM to stop listening to Ms Braverman and others who want to push further by quitting the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock accused Mr Jenrick of having the “brass neck” to announce a planned reduction in the use of hotels when he had overseen the “Tory boats chaos”.
The Labour frontbencher pointed out that there will still be 350 asylum hotels in use at the end of the winter, despite promises last year they would end hotel use this year.
The Tory minister had told MPs the process of “exiting” asylum seekers from the first tranche of 50 hotels would begin in the coming days. He said it would be “complete by the end of January with more tranches to follow shortly”.
But Mr Kinnock said the hotel announcement showed the “utter lack of ambition”, adding: “It beggars belief that the minister has the brass neck to come here today to announce not that the government has cut the number of hotels being used, but that it simply plans to – and by a paltry 12 per cent. Is that really it?”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said there was no reason to cram around 50,000 asylum seekers “into wholly unsuitable hotels” – blaming the “chaos” of an asylum backlog that has “spiralled out of control” under the current government.
But the campaigner also warned that forcing people out too soon was damaging. “In closing hotels, we are now seeing a homelessness crisis developing, with newly recognised refugees being given as little as seven days before they are evicted from accommodation.”
Mr Jenrick did not say where the 50 hotels were – other than saying they were in all four nations of the UK – after speculation the priority was to target “red wall” seats held by Tory MPs.
But the immigration minister did reveal that a hotel in Knowsley, Merseyside – where a police van was set on fire and missiles were thrown at officers – will be included in the first tranche. Mr Jenrick told Labour’s Knowsley MP George Howarth the contracts at the hotel in his area would be ended.
In March, the government introduced plans to house asylum seekers on disused military bases and barges in a bid to cut spending on hotels. That month, around 47,500 people were using hotel accommodation, according to the House of Commons Library.
Some migrants have been moved back on to the Bibby Stockholm barge in Portland, Dorset, after the discovery of Legionella bacteria in its water supply led to an evacuation in August. Mr Jenrick said occupancy on the 500-capacity vessel had reached around 50 individuals by 23 October.
Labour said its analysis of the government contract showed that the barge is costing more than £800 per person per night to house asylum seekers. Instead of tackling the problem, they just keep making the costs worse,” said Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper.