UK Detains First Rwanda Deportees as Crossings Hit Record

(Bloomberg) -- The UK government began detaining the first cohort of asylum seekers it intends to deport to Rwanda, the Home Office said, bringing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a step closer to implementing his flagship migration policy.

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The department on Wednesday released images of immigration enforcement officers handcuffing migrants who it said had entered the country illegally. The first deportation flights will take place “in the next nine to eleven weeks,” it said in an emailed statement.

The controversial policy to send to Rwanda asylum seekers who enter the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats from France has become a dividing line in British politics ahead of a general election expected later this year. The governing Conservatives argue the deportations will act as a deterrent to those seeking to make the crossing, while Keir Starmer’s poll-leading Labour Party argues the plan is unworkable.

The Tories calculate a tough stance on migration will win back voters who are considering backing the right-wing Reform UK party founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage.

Sunak last month pushed a bill through Parliament that declares Rwanda a “safe” destination for deportees, in an effort to bypass a Supreme Court ruling saying the opposite. The premier pledged the first flights would take off for the African nation in July — a concession that he’d missed an earlier promise for them to get going in the spring.

“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. “This is a complex piece of work, but we remain absolutely committed to operationalizing the policy.”

Ministers argue that a 36% decline in crossings last year give a taste of the Rwanda policy’s effect — deterring migrants even before being put into action. But Home Office data now shows crossings rose to a record 7,657 migrants in the first four months of 2024. That’s an increase of more than a quarter on the same period last year, and 14% more than the record levels registered in 2022.

The Home Office didn’t say how many migrants were detained on Wednesday. A document published this week by the department showed that of the 5,700 people that Rwanda has agreed to accept, officials can only locate 2,143 for detention — suggesting authorities have lost contact with more than half.

Separately, Sunak on Wednesday responded to reports that the Irish government is deploying more police to tackle migration across the border from Northern Ireland, saying Ireland “must uphold its promises” on keeping an open frontier.

“We can’t have cherry-picking of important international commitments,” Sunak told the House of Commons. The UK “is seeking urgent clarification that there will be no disruption or police check points at or near the border. I can confirm that the UK has no legal obligation to accept returns of illegal migrants from Ireland.”

Ireland has detected more migrants crossing into the Republic from Northern Ireland, potentially to avoid being caught up in Sunak’s Rwanda deportation plan.

Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee told reporters on Tuesday that the government will release 100 Irish police officers from desktop duties to work on immigration enforcement. The police later told the BBC that those officers will not be assigned “to physically police the border with Northern Ireland.”

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson.

(Updates with Irish row starting in ninth paragraph.)

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