UK to detain asylum seekers for deportation to Rwanda, report says

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to the Home Office. Photo Credit: Sky News FILE

Sunday, April 28, 2024 — The Home Office will launch a surprise operation to detain asylum seekers across the UK on Monday, weeks earlier than expected, in preparation for their deportation to Rwanda.

Officials plan to hold refugees who turn up for routine meetings at immigration service offices and will also pick people up nationwide in a major two-week exercise.

They will be immediately transferred to detention centres, which have already been prepared for the operation, and held to be put on flights to Rwanda, including the first one due to take off this summer. Others identified for these flights are already being held, the Guardian can reveal.

It is thought the move’s launch has been timed to coincide with Thursday’s local council elections in England, to boost Rishi Sunak’s claims he is cracking down on illegal migration.

The Home Office said the 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.”

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.

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.

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On both occasions, hundreds of people surrounded immigration enforcement vehicles to prevent asylum seekers being removed after tense standoffs between protesters and police.

Demonstrators were alerted by a protesters’ network to the detentions on Kenmure Street, and two men were eventually released from Border Force custody after a six-hour confrontation to avoid violent clashes.

Police officers will not take part in the detentions for the Rwanda flights operation but will take part in crowd control and policing the operations. A Police Scotland spokesperson referred the Guardian to the Home Office after being approached.

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.

“Offshoring people 5,000 miles away is nothing more than a grubby cash-for-people plan,” he said.

He added: “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.

“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.”

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.

“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.

“Instead of paving the way for yet another crisis in the asylum system, the government should stop its headline-grabbing efforts and commit to promptly and fairly processing asylum claims.”

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.

“We know from our clinical services that even survivors of torture who are completely safe from harm tend to live in a semi-permanent state of hypervigilance to threats, because of their history of being rounded up, detained, and abused in authoritarian states.

“So 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.”