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Deportations, Removals and Voluntary Departures from the UK

01 Feb 2019

This briefing examines the number of people deported or removed from the UK and those departing voluntarily after the initiation of enforced removal. It further examines the method and to the extent possible, the grounds for their removal and their nationalities.

  1. Key Points
    • In 2017 there were 32,551 people who were removed from the UK or departed voluntarily after the initiation of removal
    • Enforced removals have declined since 2004. Voluntary returns increased during the 2000s, peaked in 2013 and have since declined
    • Asylum seekers made up 16% of recorded removals and departures in 2017
    • Approximately 6,100 foreign national offenders were removed in 2017
    • Asian nationals make up the largest group of people who were removed or departed voluntarily, but their share has declined over time. Nationals of India, Pakistan, and China made up 29% of 2017 removals and departures
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    In common language, deportation refers to the state-enforced or enforceable departure of a non-citizen from the country. However, to understand UK immigration rules and data about deportation, it is essential to distinguish three main categories of state-enforced or enforceable departures: deportations, administrative removals, and voluntary departures.

    The first of these three categories, deportations, is a specific term that applies to people and their children whose removal from the country is deemed ‘conducive to the public good’ by the Secretary of State. Deportation can also be recommended by a court in connection with a conviction of a criminal offence that carries a prison term.

    The second category, administrative removals (or just ‘removals’), refers to a larger set of cases involving the enforced removal of non-citizens who have either entered the country illegally or deceptively, stayed in the country longer than their visa permitted, or otherwise violated the conditions of their leave to remain in the UK. Some of these administrative removals are individuals ‘refused entry at port and subsequently removed’. People in this category have been refused legal permission to enter upon arrival and removed, often after a single overnight stay (UKBA 2010). In a way, those removed in this manner have never actually entered the country: although physically present on UK territory, they have neither passed through border controls legally nor evaded them illegally. So, they may be excluded from totals, such as in Figure 1 below. However, this category of removals is included in Home Office reports on ‘removals and departures’. Therefore, it is included in some of the figures in this briefing, as specified.

    The third category of enforced removals is known as ‘voluntary departures’. The term ‘voluntary’ describes the method of departure rather than the choice of whether or not to depart. There are three kinds of voluntary departures. Some people depart by official Assisted Voluntary Return schemes, which are tracked separately in Home Office data. Others make their own travel arrangements and tell the authorities, or approach them for help with the arrangements. Home Office data refer to these as ‘notified returns’ or—in a new classification introduced from 2014 onwards—‘controlled returns’. (Note that data on ‘notified returns’ include people returning voluntarily after having been detained, whereas ‘controlled returns’ do not). Finally, some people leave without notifying the government. Up until a crucial change in data collection procedures in 2005, this group was not included in data at all.

    British nationals, with the exception of children under age 18 whose parents are subject to removal, cannot be deported or administratively removed. Meanwhile, any foreign national can be deported, although there are stricter criteria for deporting an EEA national or a refugee.

    Data on removals come from Home Office administrative sources. Home Office data classify removals and departures mainly by the categories discussed above, which are essentially procedures used by the government for ensuring departures. Since data collection has changed dramatically and might still be improving, it is impossible to draw firm conclusions about trends in removals and departures since 2005: any increases might be the result of changing data collection rather than due to actual increases in departures.

    This briefing focuses mostly on enforced removals and voluntary departures, and for most purposes excludes individuals refused entry at port. Deportations are included in data on enforced removal and voluntary departures, as they may be carried out by any of these methods. But they are not identified separately except in provisional information on deportation of foreign national prisoners from case management files, and so are discussed only briefly.

In 2017 there were 32,551 people who were removed from the UK or departed voluntarily

In 2017 there were 32,551 people who were removed from the UK or departed voluntarily (Figure 1). This is down from 39,626 in 2016. This figure excludes individuals refused entry at port and subsequently removed, in order to focus more closely on what most people normally think of as ‘deportation’.

To interpret trends over time in Figure 1, it is important to understand the role of data on ‘other verified returns’. Included from 2005 onwards, this category counts people who no longer had the right to remain in the UK and who left voluntarily outside of the official removal schemes and without notifying immigration officials, but whose departure has been confirmed nonetheless. These confirmations may have come from Home Office efforts at data-matching, using identifications at border controls, subsequent visa applications, or passenger information gathered from airlines.

Although this category has grown over time, it is impossible to know to what extent this growth comes from either better data collection, actual changes in the number of removals, or a combination of both. A UKBA report suggests that the ‘steep rise’ during the mid-2000s might come from better data matching being provided by the monitoring of departures at major airports through the early stages of the eBorders program (now known as Semaphore) (Poppleton and Rice 2009).

The black line in Figure 1 provides a more consistent picture of trends over time, by excluding the category of ‘other verified returns’. This line includes only returns overseen by the Home Office or a partner organisation, i.e. enforced, assisted and controlled returns and allows a ‘like for like’ comparison of how returns through official schemes have changed over time. It reveals that the changes to overall voluntary departures and removals since 2007 have been mainly driven by this ‘other’ category. The total number of enforced, assisted or controlled returns remained remarkably stable between 2007 and 2014, but declined from 2015 to 2017.

It is worth noting that in the past, the number of voluntary departures has often been understated when the provisional figures are first published and then revised upwards as information is gathered about those who have left without notifying the authorities. For example, the 2016 figure was revised up by 2,955 in the year after its initial publication. In short, the black line in Figure 1 may be preferable for examining change over time.

Figure 1

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Enforced removals have declined since 2004

As explained in the Understanding the evidence section, Home Office datasets classify departures and removals by the way that they take place. In 2017, 30% (9,670 people) left the UK via enforced removal (Figure 2). The figure rises to 12,049 or 37% if we include people who left ‘voluntarily’ after having been in immigration detention (not shown in chart).

A majority of returns are classified as voluntary. Specifically, 34% (10,983 people) in 2017 departed after notifying the Government, 5% (1,562) left through Assisted Voluntary Return programmes, and the remaining 32% (10,336) left without notifying the government and so were classified as ‘other verified returns’.

Figure 2

Note: this figure uses the pre-2014 classification in order to be able to compare data over time. This means that ‘notified returns’ include departures of people who have been detained; since 2014, the government has classified these people as enforced returns ‘to reflect the likely level of enforcement activity that led to these returns’ (Home Office, 2018).

The numbers of enforced removals have declined since 2004 (Figure 2). From 2004 to 2013, increases in recorded voluntary returns were sufficient to offset the declines in enforced returns, even if we exclude the ‘other verified returns’ category that are particularly affected by changes in data quality. Voluntary returns declined from 2013 to 2017, however.

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Asylum seekers made up 16% of recorded removals and departures in 2017

In 2017, 5,316 people removed or forced to depart were refused asylum seekers—a slight uptick from 2016 but still well below the average since 2004 (Figure 3). The decline in asylum removals is likely to reflect decreases in the number of asylum seekers and (at least until 2014) an increase in the share of asylum seekers granted protection (see the briefing on Migration to the UK: Asylum). Asylum removals and departures made up 16% of the total in 2017.

A majority of people removed from the UK are not asylum seekers (Figure 3). Non-asylum removals and departures rose for most of the 2000s but fell between 2016 and 2017.

Figure 3

Removals of asylum seekers are more likely to be enforced (not illustrated in the figures). In 2017, 51% of asylum removals and departures were enforced, compared to 26% of non-asylum removals and departures.

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Approximately 6,100 foreign national offenders were removed in 2017

Home Office datasets also report the number of foreign national offenders deported each year. In 2017, 6,113 foreign national offenders were removed from the UK. These numbers have fluctuated between 4,600 and 6,200 since 2009, when these statistics became available. Since 2014, a rising share of removed offenders were EU citizens.

Figure 4

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Nationals of Asian countries comprised the largest share of removals and departures in 2017 (43%) but this share has declined over time

Figure 5 shows that, by region of nationality, the largest numbers of people removed in 2016 came from Asia (13,868, or 43% of the total), Europe (8,988; 28%), Africa (4,412; 14%), and Central and South America (2,123; 7%). The share and absolute number of Asian nationals who were removed or departed voluntarily has declined since 2012.

Figure 5

Note: The “Europe” category includes both EU countries and non-EU European countries (such as Albania and Ukraine). Note that these figures do not include people refused entry at port and subsequently removed.

By country, India (14%), Pakistan (9%), and China (6%) were the countries with the largest shares of removals and departures in 2017, collectively comprising 29% of the 2017 total. These are shown in Table 1, along with the rest of the top ten for 2017.

Top ten countries of enforced removal or voluntary departure, 2017

RankCountryNumberShare of total
Source: Home Office Immigration statistics table rt_02

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Evidence gaps and limitations

There are a few notable gaps and limitations in the data on deportation, removals, and departures. Data on the grounds for removal show the number of rejected asylum applicants and foreign national prisoners, but do not go beyond that. Other removals and departures are not disaggregated by reason for removal, so we cannot say how many deported migrants entered illegally, how many overstayed visas and how many violated the conditions of their leave to remain in the UK in other ways. In fact, no up-to-date and reliable figures currently exist on the total number of unauthorised migrants in the UK (for more information see the Election 2015 briefing on Enforcement).

Although a system of exit checks has now been implemented and is producing better data on departures, there is no good way to go back and estimate the occurrences of such departures prior to Home Office efforts to detect such departures beginning in 2005.

Thanks to Bridget Anderson and Jon Simmons and his Home Office colleagues for helpful comments in an earlier version of this briefing.


  • Green, D. “Asylum: Deportation.” House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 6 Sept 2010: Column 755W-continued, House of Commons, London, 2010
  • Home Affairs Committee. “The Work of the UK Border Agency (November 2010-March 2011).” Ninth report of Session 2010-12, Volume I, House of Commons, London, 2011
  • Home Office. Immigration statistics, Returns, Volumes 1 & 5, 2018
  • National Audit Office. “Returning Failed Asylum Applicants.” HC 76 Session 2005-2006, Appendix 2: 44, National Audit Office, London, 2005
  • Poppleton, S. and L. Rice. “Programmes and Strategies in the UK Fostering Assisted Return to And Reintegration In Third Countries.” European Migration Network (EMN) Project Report, 2009
  • UK Border Agency. “Impact Assessment of Proposed Amendments to the Immigration Rules; refusing entry or extensions of stay to NHS debtors. Summary: Intervention and Options.” Home Office, London, 2009
  • Woolas, P. “Asylum: Deportation.” House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 6 July 2009: Column 563W, House of Commons, London, 2009

Further readings

  • Gibney, Matthew J. “Asylum and the Expansion of Deportation in the United Kingdom.” Government and Opposition 43 (2008): 139-143
  • Paoletti, Emanuela. “Deportation, Non-deportability and Ideas of Membership.” Working Paper Series No. 65, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford, 2010

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