Minister insists thousands of missing asylum seekers lined up for Rwanda deportation ‘will be found’

Out of 5,700 people identified for removal, just 2,145 can be located for detention, an impact assessment says

Kate Devlin,Zoe Grunewald
Tuesday 30 April 2024 19:06 BST
Rishi Sunak has said he wants the first flights to take off by July

Rishi Sunak is facing accusations his flagship Rwanda policy has become a “farce” after ministers promised to find thousands of missing asylum seekers earmarked for deportation.

Police raids could be among a range of measures used to locate them, health secretary Victoria Atkins suggested.

She said: “We want the message to go out loud and clear that if somebody doesn’t report as they should do, they shouldn’t think that they’ll get away with it. They will be found.”

Of 5,700 people identified for removal, just 2,145 “continue to report to the Home Office and can be located for detention”, according to an official document published by the department.

The revelation is the latest in a series of setbacks to the scheme to give asylum seekers a one-way ticket to the African country, which has yet to see a flight take off two years after it was announced.

No 10 said it was “not accurate” to say the Home Office was unable to locate about half of those told they could be deported, and that many were “residing in Home Office accommodation”.

However, an ex-border chief said the group had “done a disappearing act”.

Kevin Saunders, who was the chief immigration officer at Border Force, said he was not surprised “in the slightest” that the Home Office had lost contact with them.

“I would not like to say that the Home Office are telling porkies here, but let’s say that they temporarily can’t find them”, he said, as he predicted they would “probably” turn up in Ireland. “They know that they are in the frame to be removed, they don’t want to be removed so they are going to disappear,” he added.

Shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, said the situation was a “farce” that exposed the “chaos at the heart of their Rwanda policy”.

He added: “The prime minister promised to detain and remove all those who crossed the Channel. Now he can’t even locate those intended for removal. How can the Conservative Home Office keep losing so many people?”

The document also acknowledged there could be further setbacks to Mr Sunak’s plans, caused by last-minute representations from MPs.

Under a long-standing parliamentary convention removals can be suspended until a case has been considered and a response issued to the MP concerned.

The assessment says that given the “novel nature” of the scheme, “we may expect future [Migration and Economic Development Partnership] cases to attract significant attention from MPs, and responders may be overwhelmed by cases, causing a delay or removal to be cancelled pending a response.”

Rishi Sunak welcomes president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, to No 10
Rishi Sunak welcomes president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, to No 10 (PA)

The row comes as ministers try to get on the front foot on migration – as the number of foreign care workers applying for a visa, for them and their dependents, fell by a quarter in six months.

Applications were made for health and care visa applications covering 153,500 people between October and March, down 25 per cent from 205,800 people in the six months to September.

Other statistics showed the number of homeless asylum seekers previously in supported accommodation jumped sharply last year, to 4,150 in December – almost five times the figure for the previous year, which stood at just 900.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “As the prime minister has made clear, we will get flights off the ground to Rwanda in the next 10 to 12 weeks.

“In preparation for flights taking off, we have identified the initial cohort to be removed to Rwanda and have hundreds of dedicated caseworkers ready to process any appeals,” they added.

According to The Times newspaper, sources in the department have also suggested there is a significant risk that identified migrants could abscond once the scheme is implemented.

Until now, free accommodation and a £49 weekly allowance have acted as an incentive to prevent migrants from vanishing.

However, officials fear that the threat of being sent to Rwanda would mean many would rather forfeit their benefits than risk deportation.

Asked how many of the 5,700 migrants who have been identified for removal would be deported by the end of this calendar year, Ms Atkins told Sky News the Home Office was “used” to asylum seekers who had stopped reporting: “I know that there are reports today that some of the cohort have stopped reporting, but ... the Home Office is used to this operationally, law enforcement officers are used to this.”

She added: “We want the message to go out loud and clear that if somebody doesn’t report as they should do, they shouldn’t think that they’ll get away with it. They will be found. Law enforcement have a variety of measures to find people, they will be found and they will be removed.”

Ministers are preparing for the first flights to take off by July, with the government set to detain asylum seekers this week in preparation.

The UK government’s Rwanda legislation paves the way for asylum seekers to be sent on a one-way trip to the African nation.

Ministers insist it acts as a deterrent to stop small boat crossings from France.

Northern Ireland secretary , Chris Heaton-Harris, and Irish deputy premier, Micheal Martin, met to discuss border issues
Northern Ireland secretary , Chris Heaton-Harris, and Irish deputy premier, Micheal Martin, met to discuss border issues (PA)

Home Office figures show more than 7,000 migrants have arrived in the UK so far this year after making the journey – a new record for the first four months of a calendar year.

About 500 crossed on Friday and Saturday alone, taking the provisional total for 2024 to date to 7,167.

This exceeds the previous record of 6,691 for January to April 2022 and has already surpassed 5,946 for the first four months of last year.

It means arrivals are 24 per cent higher than this time last year and 7 per cent higher than at this point in 2022.

No crossings were recorded on Sunday but groups of migrants were pictured being brought ashore in Dover, Kent, on Monday amid clear conditions at sea.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in