UK Home Office detains asylum seekers destined for Rwanda

Home Office enforcement teams began detaining asylum seekers destined for removal to Rwanda in a “large scale” operation across the UK on Wednesday as the union for senior civil servants started legal proceedings over the policy.

The department posted a video sequence on social media platform X showing officers hauling people from their residences and locking them up in vans to a soundtrack of electronic music.

“Our dedicated enforcement teams are working at pace to swiftly detain those who have no right to be here so we can get flights off the ground,” home secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.

Rishi Sunak hopes the launch of his flagship policy to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda, after two years in which operations were stalled by legal and parliamentary wrangling, will deter migrants from crossing the Channel into the UK. The prime minister has made “stopping the boats” one of five pre-election pledges to voters.

Some 759 people have made the perilous journey since Friday, according to Home Office data, with the overall number crossing in the first four months of this year already, at more than 7,500, higher than records set in 2022.

But in a move that could yet delay flights to Kigali, the FDA union on Wednesday said it had applied for a judicial review into the Rwanda plan, saying that officials could be compelled to break international law in order to follow UK government orders.

The union said the government had acted in a “cowardly” and “reckless” way by putting civil servants in a position where they would break the civil service code — which states they must abide by international law — by following ministers’ orders to ignore any injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights halting flights.

This year, the Home Office drafted guidance for civil servants, which said they were obliged to obey ministers’ decisions about whether to comply with so-called pyjama injunctions from the ECHR.

The Home Office was contacted for comment.

The first detentions under the as yet untested Rwanda asylum scheme come in a difficult week for Sunak, with his Conservative party expected to suffer heavy losses in local elections in England and Wales on Thursday.

Officials declined to give details of the operation, which they described as “large scale”, or the number of people initially involved, but said arrests had been made across the UK.  

Sunak said last month that the first flights carrying asylum seekers to Kigali would take off by July, months after he had originally promised, and following the passage into law of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) bill.

The contentious legislation designated Rwanda a safe country for asylum seekers in contradiction of a Supreme Court ruling last year, and in order to limit the scope for future legal challenges.

The Home Office said it had increased immigration detention capacity to more than 2,200 spaces to accommodate those people destined for removal to Rwanda. The department had also trained 200 new caseworkers to quickly process claims and had 500 escorts ready, it said, to force people on to planes. 

Commercial charters had been booked and an airport put on standby for the first flights, it added. 

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council charity, said the onset of detentions was causing “fear, distress and great anxiety amongst men, women and children who have fled war and persecution to reach safety in the UK”.

“Children have been sending messages to our staff terrified that their age disputed status will put them at risk of removal to Rwanda. We have also seen a worsening in the mental health and wellbeing of people we work with in the asylum system,” he added.

Stephen Kinnock, Labour shadow immigration minister, pointed to government figures suggesting the Home Office was in contact with only 38 per cent of asylum seekers it intended to remove to Rwanda. 

Downing Street has said it is “not accurate” to say the Home Office is unable to locate the remainder of the 5,700 asylum seekers it has identified to put on the first flights.

Questions remain about Labour’s immigration strategy, including how the main opposition party would deal with the tens of thousands of migrants living in limbo in the UK who are deemed inadmissible to the asylum system under current government policy.

Labour has said it would speed up processing, but has not confirmed whether it would grant those individuals asylum seeker status.

On Wednesday, Labour confirmed that while the party would block any further removal flights to Rwanda if it won power, it would not bring back to the UK any asylum seekers already sent there by Sunak’s administration by the general election.

This did not imply that Labour viewed Rwanda as a safe country to which to send asylum seekers, the party added.

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