This briefing examines the deportation (or ‘enforced return’) and voluntary departure (‘voluntary return’) of people without the right to be in the UK. It presents statistics on the numbers and characteristics of people who are removed from the UK or who leave voluntarily.
- COVID-19 had a major impact on the number of people without immigration status who were removed from or departed the UK.
- Total returns have fallen substantially since 2015.
- Enforced returns have fallen year on year since 2012.
- Voluntary returns fell substantially after 2015.
- In 2021, 8% of returnees were asylum seekers.
- In 2021, 19% of all returnees were EU citizens, down from 24% in 2020.
- In 2021, 28% of all people returned were foreign national offenders, and 61% of returned FNOs were EU citizens.
- The government has found that at least 83 members of the Windrush generation may have been wrongly removed from the UK since 2002.
- The number of EU citizens refused entry to the UK increased substantially in 2021.
- COVID-19 had a major impact on the number of people without immigration status who were removed from or departed the UK.
Understanding the Policy
In general usage, deportation refers to the removal of a foreign citizen from a country’s territory. In UK legal terminology, however, deportation refers to a subset of government-enforced removals: of people with a criminal conviction, or those whose removal from the UK is determined to be conducive to the public good. ... Click to read more.
Because of this technical usage of the word deportation, this briefing uses the government’s preferred word, return, to refer to a removal or departure of a foreign citizen whom the Home Office determines has no right to be in the UK.
The Home Office is the government department responsible for removing – or aiding or monitoring the voluntary departure of – people who have no legal right to be in the UK. This includes those who have entered the UK without authorisation; people who have stayed in the country longer than their visa permits, or who have otherwise breached the conditions of their visa; those being deported in the narrow sense defined above, such as due to a criminal conviction; and those who have been refused asylum and have no legal right to stay in the UK.
Before the end of free movement, EU citizens could be removed either for not exercising Treaty rights (i.e., if they were not a jobseeker, worker, self-employed person, self-sufficient, or a student), or on public policy grounds, such as due to a criminal conviction or for reasons of national security. Now that EU free movement has ended, EU citizens can be removed for the same reasons as non-British citizens from the rest of the world.
Even British citizens can be returned, but only if they are under 18 and their parents are subject to removal.
Most returnees are returned to their country of nationality. However, in some cases, a returnee is sent to a country other than their country of nationality. For example, before 1 January 2021, when the UK was party to the Dublin III Regulation, the UK could in some circumstances transfer asylum seekers to the first EU member state in which they arrived after leaving their origin country. On 31 December 2021, when the Brexit transition period ended, the UK ceased to be party to the Dublin III Regulation. On 1 January 2021, new rules on ‘inadmissibility’ were introduced (modified on 28 June as a result of provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022), to enable the Home Office to put on hold an asylum claim from an individual with a connection to a safe third country, during which the Home Office will try to remove the individual to that country.
The UK government has also proposed to relocate some asylum seekers to Rwanda (see our Q&A: The UK’s policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda), although at the time of writing nobody has been transferred.
Understanding the Evidence
Statistics on returns come from administrative data published by the Home Office, as part of its Immigration Statistics Quarterly Release. The data are for the number of returns rather than the number of unique individuals returned. Therefore, if one person were returned, say, twice in a given period, they would be counted twice in the statistics. ... Click to read more.
Home Office datasets break down returns into two broad types: enforced and voluntary.
Enforced returns refer primarily to the removal of people who have declined to leave the UK voluntarily, and where the Home Office enforces their departure. There are three categories of enforced returns: (1) enforced removals from detention, where the individual is removed directly from detention or within two days of leaving detention; (2) other returns from detention, where the individual is removed directly from detention or within two days of leaving detention and has notified the Home Office that they wish to make their own arrangements to leave the country, with the Home Office facilitating or monitoring the return (in this briefing these are called voluntary returns from detention); and (3) non-detained enforced removals, where the individual is removed more than 2 days after leaving detention, or where there was no period of detention prior to the enforced removal. Enforced returns thereby reflect a high level of Home Office enforcement activity.
By contrast, voluntary returns are subject to a lower level of Home Office enforcement activity, or none at all. In Home Office statistics, two types of voluntary return are facilitated or monitored by the Home Office: assisted returns and controlled returns. Assisted returns are where returnees voluntarily make an application to the Home Office’s Voluntary Returns Service and who are accepted to receive a re-integration package as part of their departure (of between £1,000 and £2,000), or where the Home Office arranges and pays for the flights. Controlled returns are where a person leaves the UK voluntarily at their own expense and who either notifies the Home Office prior to departure or has the Home Office oversee their departure. In this briefing, assisted returns and controlled returns are grouped together under the label facilitated or monitored returns, because these returns are actively facilitated or monitored by the Home Office.
A third type of voluntary return, called independent returns in this briefing (and other verified returns in the Home Office datasets) are made independently of the authorities. These returns refer to people who have not notified the authorities that they are leaving and may have had no contact with immigration enforcement officials. In these cases, the Home Office knows that the person has left the country primarily due to data matching processes. For example, visa records may show that a person has an expired visa and exit checks confirm that the individual has left the UK.
Importantly, data for the most recent two years (or eight quarters) of voluntary returns are likely to be undercounts. This is because independent returns (other verified returns in the datasets) are initially undercounted and later revised upwards, as in some cases it takes time to identify people who have left the UK without informing the authorities. Therefore, comparisons over time involving the most recent two years for which there are data should be made with caution.
Another category of returns is port returns, labelled in the datasets individuals refused entry at port and subsequently departed. People in this category have been denied legal permission to enter the UK on arrival and have left the country. Because people removed in this way have not passed through border controls into the UK, we exclude them from counts of returns in this briefing, and instead discuss port returns in its own section.
All returns statistics in this briefing include both main applicants and their dependants. The Home Office data do not separate these categories and so it is not possible to determine the number of returns of families.
In its published statistics, the Home Office includes counts of the number of people who made an asylum claim prior to their enforced or voluntary return. This includes not only asylum seekers whose claim has been refused and who have exhausted all rights of appeal, but also those granted some form of asylum-related protection, but who have then been removed for other reasons, such as criminal behaviour (Home Office, 2022d).
In 2020, the Home Office revised its returns statistics from 2007 onwards, as a result of improved data-matching, and a more accurate categorisation of returns as enforced or voluntary (Home Office, 2022d).
COVID-19 had a major impact on the number of people without immigration status who were removed from or departed the UK
The COVID-19 pandemic substantially reduced all major types of return from the UK in 2020 (Figure 1). The Home Office states that lockdown-related restrictions on both travel and the Home Office’s enforcement operations led to the decline (Home Office, 2022a). The decline was most pronounced in the second quarter of 2020, after the first national lockdown, with some rebound in subsequent quarters, though not to pre-pandemic levels.
In part, these falls in returns are also likely to have resulted from a COVID-related reduction in the population of immigration detainees in the UK, which reached a record low of 698 at the end of Q2 2020 (30 June), down 60% on the number for Q2 2019. For more information on COVID-19 and detention, see our briefing Immigration Detention in the UK).
In 2021, there were around 9,500 returns, comprising both enforced and voluntary returns, though this number will increase due to initial undercounting of voluntary returns. This is down from a peak of around 47,000 in 2013 (Figure 2).
In every year from 2007 onwards, total voluntary returns (given by the sum of Facilitated or monitored and Independent returns) outnumbered enforced returns. The Home Office prefers voluntary returns (National Audit Office, 2020, p. 35), in part because its research shows that they are much cheaper. The Home Office reported in 2013 that the average cost of a voluntary return was £1,000, compared to £15,000 for an enforced return (Home Office, 2013, p. 4).
The fall in returns after 2015 has been driven by declines in both enforced and voluntary returns, though the number of voluntary returns has fallen more steeply (though, as explained above, some of this fall in 2020 and 2021 is due to initial undercounting). This fall is likely due to several factors. The Home Office suggests that one factor for the overall fall in returns is “tighter screening of passengers prior to travel”, to reduce the entry of people who may go on to become irregular migrants (Home Office, 2022a).
There is little hard evidence to explain the fall in voluntary returns, though there are several potential reasons for the decrease in enforced returns, which are reviewed in the next section.
From 2005 to 2021, most returnees have been male, ranging in any given year from 70% to 78%.
Of all people returned in 2021, 5% (464) were children under 18, 79% were aged 18 to 49 (7,515), and 16% (1,529) were 50 or older.
In 2021, there were around 2,800 enforced returns, 18% fewer than in 2020, and 62% fewer than in 2019. This was the lowest annual number of enforced returns since this data series began (Figure 3). This steep fall is likely to have resulted in part from the pandemic, although the decline in returns began well before 2020.
Since 2010, Home Office statistics have broken down enforced returns into three categories. These data show that most people are detained before they are returned: 79% in 2021 (Figure 3).
The decline in enforced returns in 2021 forms part of a longer-term fall in enforced returns after 2012. The Home Office (2019a) reports that falls in enforced returns (before the pandemic) coincided with changes across the immigration system. According to the Home Office, these changes included the government reducing the use of detention and the size of the detention estate (see our briefing on Immigration Detention in the UK), and the government implementing changes following the Windrush scandal to give more scrutiny to detention decisions and ‘make better use of face-to-face engagement’ with detainees (Joint Committee on Human Rights, 2019, p. 4). A review of illegal working by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (2019) also identified factors that may have reduced removals following Windrush, including a pause in data sharing between government departments and lower morale among front-line enforcement staff.
Like enforced returns, voluntary returns have also fallen substantially in recent years (Figure 2, above), but are showing some signs of recovery after the pandemic, whilst still remaining 46% lower than pre-pandemic 2019 levels.
Some voluntary returns are facilitated or monitored by the Home Office, while others are not. Figure 4 breaks down the data into facilitated or monitored returns, and independent returns, where the Home Office establishes that the person has left the UK after the fact.
Facilitated or monitored returns fell after 2015, and were 82% lower in 2021 than their peak in 2015 (Figure 4).
Independent returns have also fallen significantly from a peak in 2013, although the counts for 2020 and 2021 will be revised upwards, reducing the size of the decline (Figure 4).
An increase in voluntary returns was a key objective of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, introduced in 2014 and now referred to by the government as the ‘compliant environment’ policy. The policy aimed to make life in the UK so difficult for people without immigration status that they would leave the country voluntarily. However, it is unclear what impact the policy has had on voluntary returns. A 2020 report by the National Audit Office into the effectiveness of the hostile environment states that the Home Office is “currently unable to measure whether these activities have the desired effect of encouraging people to leave voluntarily” (National Audit Office, 2020, p. 28).
In 2021, 779 people who left the UK departed via enforced or voluntary return had previously sought asylum in the UK – equivalent to 8% of all departures. This suggests that 92% of returnees in 2021 were not asylum seekers (note that these percentages will change because Independent returns are provisional and subject to upward revision).
In previous years, more asylum seekers were returned, and they made up a greater share of total returns (Figure 5). For example, in 2010 there were around 10,600 asylum returns, making up 23% of all returns.
Returns of people who have previously sought asylum are less likely to be enforced than are non-asylum departures. In 2021, 15% of asylum returns were enforced, compared to 30% of non-asylum returns (Home Office, 2022c).
In every year from 2010 to 2019, citizens of South Asian countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) made up the largest share of those who left the UK via enforced or voluntary return. In 2020, for the first time since records began in 2004, EU citizens were the most commonly returned (when compared with citizens of the other major world regions), making up a quarter of all returnees (Figure 5). The rise in the return of EU nationals coincided with an increase in the population of EU citizens resident in the UK, which took place before free movement ended, including during the transition period up to 31 December 2020 (see the Migration Observatory briefing, EU migration to and from the UK). In 2021, citizens of South Asian countries regained the top position.
Of the roughly 9,500 people who left the UK via enforced or voluntary return in 2021, 57% were the citizens of ten countries (Table 1). To some extent, these patterns reflect the total number of each country’s citizens in the UK. However, the citizens of some countries are overrepresented in returns statistics. For example, in 2021, Albanians made up 0.6% of foreign citizens in the UK, but 11% of people returned.
In 2021, of the roughly 9,500 enforced and voluntary returns, 78% were of an individual to their country of nationality; 10% were to an EU member state that was not the returnee’s country of nationality; and 12% were to another country or an unknown destination, meaning that the destination was not available for statistical purposes (Home Office, 2022b).
In 2021, 28% of all people returned were foreign national offenders, and 61% of returned FNOs were EU citizens
Home Office statistics include the number of foreign national offenders (FNOs) returned from the UK each year. A foreign national offender is a non-British citizen who has been convicted either in the UK of any criminal offence, or abroad of any serious criminal offence. These data are broken down by the nationality of the returnee.
In 2021, around 2,700 foreign national offenders left the UK via enforced or voluntary return (most will have left via enforced return), making up 28% of all returns. The number will increase due to initial undercounting of voluntary returns.
From 2010 to 2021, the share of returned FNOs who were EU citizens has risen, from 18% in 2010 to 61% in 2021. This is the result of a steady increase in the number of EU FNOs returned and a decrease in the returns of non-EU FNOs (Figure 7). The rise in the return of EU nationals coincided with an increase in the population of EU citizens that are resident in the UK, and with a gradual decrease from April 2009 in the threshold of seriousness of crimes that led to an EU citizen being considered for removal (Home Office, 2019b, p. 12).
A total of 1,776 EU citizens left the UK via enforced or voluntary return in 2021, comprising both FNOs and non-FNOs (see Figure 6, above). This means that a large majority of EU citizens that are returned are foreign national offenders: 92% in 2021 (1,642 of 1,776). This share is up from a low of 76% in 2016, when 4,226 of the 5,547 EU nationals returned were FNOs. These figures in large part reflect that, until recently, EU citizens benefited from freedom of movement rights and thus there was not a large number of irregular migrants from EU countries.
For the third year running, citizens of Romania and Albania were the most commonly returned FNOs. In 2021, 48% of all returned FNOs were Romanians or Albanians (Figure 8).
The government has found that at least 83 members of the Windrush generation may have been wrongly removed from the UK since 2002
In some cases, long-term legal residents or even British citizens who are unable to prove their status have been returned, as illustrated by the 2018 Windrush scandal (see Williams, 2020).
The Home Office Windrush Historical Cases Review examined the immigration records of 11,800 British residents of Caribbean Commonwealth nationality who were born before 1973 and who had been held in immigration detention or removed from the UK since 2002. The review found that the Home Office may have wrongly removed 83 people of the Windrush generation from the UK, 31 of whom were detained beforehand (Home Office, 2020).
Of these 83 individuals, 61 (73%) were Jamaican nationals. The remaining 22 individuals were nationals of eight other Caribbean countries. As at 28 April 2020, 13 of these 83 individuals are deceased. The Home Office has been unable to contact a further 14 individuals. Of the 56 individuals with whom the Home Office has made contact, 28 have been granted citizenship or some form of leave, 9 will submit an application under the Windrush documentation scheme, 11 are awaiting a decision, and 8 have confirmed that they are not making an application (Home Office, 2020, p. 16).
The end of EU freedom of movement greatly increased the circumstances under which border officers could turn away EU citizens at the border. As a result, the number of EU citizens refused entry to the UK in ports (either in the UK or abroad at checkpoints in Belgium, France or the Netherlands) sharply increased in 2021. Around 12,700 EU citizens were refused entry to the UK in 2021, either at UK ports of entry, or at entry points in Belgium, France, or the Netherlands (known as juxtaposed controls). This compares to around 2,700 in the whole of 2019 (Figure 9). The majority (58%, around 7,400) were Romanian.
A variety of factors affect the number of people refused entry, including overall travel volumes, decision-making by border officers, and travellers’ knowledge and understanding of changes in the rules. EU citizens do not require a visa to enter the UK to visit, but border officers have discretion to turn them away if they believe that they are likely to violate the immigration rules, such as by working without permission.
Evidence Gaps and Limitations
Much information about returns is not included in the published Home Office statistics. Data on the reason for removal is limited to information on whether the person previously made an asylum claim and whether a person was a foreign national offender. There is no information regarding the immigration history of returnees, and so no counts of how many of those returned are unauthorised entrants, refused asylum applicants, visa overstayers, or who otherwise breached the conditions of their permission to stay in the UK.
Before the end of EU freedom of movement, the UK government could return EU citizens for more limited reasons than non-EU citizens, including no longer having residence rights under EU law, national security, or public policy. But as for all other returnees, information is not publicly available on the reason for EU citizens’ return, beyond being a foreign national offender.
There is also no information on how long visa overstayers had been in the UK without permission before their departure, which means we do not know the extent to which independent returns (of people who leave voluntarily without intervention from immigration authorities) comprises people who lived and worked irregularly in the UK for a substantial period, as opposed to those who overstayed their visa for only a few days.
Relatively little is known about the personal or demographic characteristics of those returned, beyond their age, sex, and nationality. Age, sex, and specific nationality breakdowns are not provided for the returns of asylum seekers; and for FNOs, only nationality breakdowns are provided. Nor are data regularly published on how long returnees have lived in the UK, where they lived, whether they were settled residents, or whether they were labour, student, or family migrants.
Finally, the published data refer only to enforced returns and do not break this down into people removed via deportation (due to a criminal conviction) and “those removed under other administrative and illegal entry powers that have declined to leave voluntarily” (Home Office, 2022a).
With thanks to CJ McKinney of freemovement.org.uk, for providing valuable feedback on drafts of this briefing, and to Kotaro Oriishi for research assistance.
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