Home » Home Office to detain asylum seekers across UK in shock Rwanda operation

Home Office to detain asylum seekers across UK in shock Rwanda operation

The Home Office will launch a major operation to detain asylum seekers across the UK on Monday, weeks earlier than expected, in preparation for their deportation to Rwanda, the Guardian can reveal.

Officials plan to hold asylum seekers who turn up for routine meetings at immigration service offices or bail appointments and will also pick people up nationwide in a surprise two-week exercise.

Lawyers and campaigners said the detentions risked provoking protracted legal battles, community protests and clashes with police – with officers in Scotland put on high alert.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The government is determined to recklessly pursue its inhumane Rwanda plan despite the cost, chaos and human misery it will unleash. We know it is likely to cause a catastrophic system meltdown.”

Detainees will be immediately transferred to detention centres, which have already been prepared for the operation, and held until they are put on planes to Rwanda. Some will be put on the first flight due to take off this summer.

The Home Office said ratification of the prime minister’s Safety of Rwanda Act meant “the government is entering the final phase of operationalising this landmark policy to tackle illegal migration and stop the boats”.

It added: “At some stage inevitably this will include detaining people in preparation for the first flight, which is set to take off to Rwanda in 10 to 12 weeks. It would be inappropriate to comment further on operational activity.”

The start of the Home Office’s detention operation, which had not been anticipated for weeks, coincides with Thursday’s local council elections in England where the Tories face losing up to half the seats they currently hold.

Rishi Sunak said on Sunday that cracking down on illegal migration was central to the Tory campaign.

Police in Scotland have been put on alert because of the high risk of street protests and attempts by pro-refugee campaigners to stop detentions. Officers will not take part in the detentions but will take charge of crowd control and public order. A Police Scotland spokesperson referred the Guardian to the Home Office.

Local communities in Scotland have twice prevented deportations by staging mass protests, on Kenmure Street in Glasgow in May 2021, and in Nicolson Square, Edinburgh, in June 2022. On both occasions, hundreds of people surrounded immigration enforcement vehicles to prevent asylum seekers being removed.

During an interview in which he mentioned Rwanda and illegal migration 13 times, the prime minister said on Sunday that he was focused on “stopping the boats”, as well as his pledges on the economy. He told Sky News’s Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips of his “determination to get that Rwanda scheme going”.

However, the latest official data, released on Sunday, showed the number of people arriving by small boats in the first four months of 2024 was the highest ever for that period, at 7,167 people, compared with 5,745 for the same period last year. The previous record for those four months was 6,691.

Speaking on Monday before the Lords and Commons sat through the night to pass the safety of Rwanda (asylum and immigration) bill, Sunak said: “To detain people while we prepare to remove them, we’ve increased detention spaces to 2,200.

“To quickly process claims, we’ve got 200 trained, dedicated caseworkers ready and waiting. To deal with any legal cases quickly and decisively, the judiciary have made available 25 courtrooms and identified 150 judges who could provide over 5,000 sitting days.”

Aamer Anwar, a Glasgow-based human rights lawyer who was directly involved in the Kenmure Street protests, said Police Scotland and the Scottish government had to be certain they believed this was lawful.

He revealed he had been inundated with calls from activists after the Guardian first reported the Home Office move on Sunday morning. “People are extremely angry and upset, and ready to mobilise,” Anwar said, adding it would be “extremely dangerous” for Police Scotland to put itself in the middle of a deportation protest if people felt they were acting to protect deportation operations.

“I suspect in the coming days we will see an explosion of the spirit of Kenmure Street across the UK, opposing a policy that will lead to misery, self-harm and death, driving so many more into the arms of people smugglers,” Anwar said. “The fundamental question for the Scottish government as well as Police Scotland is whether they are willing to engage in this barbaric abuse of power against a desperate people.”

Solomon said the detention and removal operations were likely to persuade other asylum seekers already in the UK to disappear, for fear of being deported.

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“Even if a few thousand people are removed to Rwanda this year, there will be tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from countries like Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, stranded in permanent limbo in the UK, likely to fall out of contact with services and face the risk of exploitation and abuse.

“This could be avoided if the government opted instead to operate a fair, effective and humane asylum system.”

The Labour MP Kim Johnson, who sits on the home affairs committee, said: “Rishi Sunak and his government are determined to prove this scheme will work, when everyone apart from the Tories know it is an abject failure. Detaining desperate people who have been languishing in a state of uncertainty for far too long, and using them for political point-scoring, is amoral. It sums up this government, and that’s why we need a general election ASAP, to get rid once and for all.

“This government is determined to kick the most vulnerable communities on the way out of the door in a desperate attempt to rebuild its credibility with the electorate.”

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said the “cruel political gimmick” was “the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped”.

He added: “This is a grubby attempt by the Conservatives to distract from their appalling record a few days out from the local elections. The Rwanda scheme is immoral, unworkable and expensive for taxpayers.”

Sonya Sceats, the chief executive of Freedom from Torture, a charity that supports torture survivors, said the detentions and deportations would add to the trauma refugees had already experienced.

“News of this crackdown is sure to trigger mental health collapse in many men, women and children in the care of our therapists.

“Compassionate people up and down the country will be sickened by this performative cruelty designed to generate headlines and stoke fear among people fleeing torture and persecution. This is not who we are as a country.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “We have been absolutely clear in our opposition to the Rwanda bill since it was introduced. The UK should be upholding the 1951 UN refugee convention and supporting people in need of protection, not undermining international protection.

“The UK government should focus on improving the UK asylum system, so that people are treated fairly and with dignity and respect throughout the process. UK government asylum policy and legislation has a significant impact on people living in our communities as well as on local authorities who play a critical role in supporting asylum seekers and refugees.”

This article was amended on 29 April 2024. An earlier version said that officials plan to hold refugees who turn up for routine meetings at immigration service offices or bail appointments. This should have said asylum seekers.