British opposition leader Keir Starmer pledged on Friday to “smash the gangs” who bring asylum seekers to Britain in boats, saying a Labour government would hire hundreds of enforcement officials and use counterterrorism powers to target them.

Accusing the Conservative government of “gesture politics” and rubbishing its plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as a waste of money, Starmer said if in government Labour would work with European partners to break the gangs’ business model.

He aimed to counter Conservative attacks on Labour accusing the opposition party of having no plan to tackle illegal immigration, an issue that is set to be a major battleground in a national election later this year.

In a speech on the south coast of England, Starmer said his policy was tough but pragmatic, telling supporters there was nothing compassionate in turning a blind eye to a business that allowed children to die in the Channel.

That is my message to the smugglers – these shores will become hostile territory for you. We will find you, we will stop you, we will protect your victims, with the Border Security Command, we will secure Britain’s borders,” he said.

“So, I say to the British people: if I am elected to serve this country … I will turn the page on Westminster’s ‘talk tough, do nothing’ culture. Not just on small boats. Not just on migration. On everything,” he said, after being introduced by Natalie Elphicke, the local lawmaker who defected from the Conservatives to Labour earlier in the week.

He declined to set a target for getting the numbers down, but said his government would move quickly to bring in his measures and scrap a Rwanda scheme, which he described as only able to remove 1% of those crossing the Channel.

Almost eight years after Britain voted to leave the European Union to “take back control” of the country’s borders, illegal migration remains a hot political issue. More than 8,000 people have arrived so far this year on small boats, with many fleeing war or famine and travelling through Europe to Britain, making the start of this year a record for such arrivals.

Labour has traditionally been seen as weak on tackling immigration, and Starmer’s tough speech was partly aimed at telling traditional Conservative voters they could vote for what he said was his “changed party”.

Starmer, whose party looks set to win the next election according to opinion polls, said his party would create a Border Security Command that would bring together staff from the police, the domestic intelligence agency and prosecutors to work with international agencies to stop people smuggling.

Labour said the hundreds of new specialist investigators, intelligence agents and cross-border police officers in this new unit would have the powers to carry out searches and to secure warrants to seize assets before an offence has taken place.

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