Tens of thousands of failed asylum seekers have been added to the group of people at risk of being forcibly removed to Rwanda, the UK Home Office has announced.

The UK and Rwandan governments have agreed a deal to extend the cohort of those eligible to be forcibly removed to the east African country to refused asylum seekers. Lawyers have condemned the development and said it would drive asylum seekers underground.

The Home Office has confirmed that some failed asylum seekers have already been rounded up by immigration enforcement officers and detained in preparation for removal to Rwanda in the next “seven to nine weeks” as part of Operation Vector. They will not have their asylum claims processed in Rwanda but will be granted residency and receive the same five-year support package as those whose asylum claims will be processed in Rwanda.

According to government data, in 2023 there were 24,310 refusals of asylum claims and 24,027 withdrawals. Both groups are now at risk of being forcibly relocated to Rwanda. It is unclear in the latest guidance what period of refused asylum claims the government is looking at for forcible removal to Rwanda. Some claims go back to a period before small boat arrivals began. While some of this group have been returned to their home countries many others cannot be sent back for a variety of reasons including because their country is a dangerous conflict zone. Refused asylum seekers from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan are in scope for the latest forced removals.

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, has said repeatedly that the aim of the Rwanda policy is to deter small boat arrivals. The belated inclusion of refused asylum seekers, some of whom have put down roots in the UK and many of whom did not arrive in small boats, is a significant departure from the previously published policy.

Earlier this month, the Home Office said the first cohort of asylum seekers destined for Rwanda would be those who arrived in the UK between January 2022 and June 2023 whose claims had not been processed and who would instead have their claims dealt with in Rwanda. Wednesday’s announcement extends the list of those at risk of deportation.

According to Home Office guidance issued this week along with letters from UK and Rwandan diplomats, asylum seekers who have had their asylum claims considered and rejected in the UK can now be sent to Rwanda alongside those whose asylum claims are not being considered in the UK at all.

Zoe Bantleman, the legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said: “This newly penned agreement will mean that every individual in the UK whose protection claim has been refused may be considered for removal to Rwanda. This performative action to see flights off the ground will cause unnecessary panic and fear. It will drive people underground.”

Charlotte Khan, the head of advocacy and public affairs at the charity Care4Calais said: “The idea that Rwanda was ever going to be a deterrent was always for the birds, but surely even this incompetent government can’t spin the notion that sending someone whose asylum claim has been rejected to Rwanda will deter a single person from crossing the Channel?”

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The UK home secretary, James Cleverly, said: “Those who have no right to remain in the UK should not be allowed to stay. We continue to swiftly detain those in line for removal to ensure we have a steady drumbeat of flights to Rwanda. Failed asylum seekers who do not leave the UK voluntarily will be in line for detention and enforced removal to a safe third country under the new agreement.”

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