Asylum seekers have been left “in despair” after receiving letters sent in error by the Home Office telling them they faced removal to Rwanda, the Guardian has learned.
Labour accused the government of being in disarray after Home Office sources admitting to sending the letters out by mistake.
Several people told the Guardian they had received the letters in recent days, with lawyers beginning work on cases. Some said they believed the Home Office was planning a Rwanda flight imminently as its controversial safety of Rwanda bill makes its way through parliament.
When the Guardian approached the Home Office, sources said the letters had been sent in error and should be disregarded, and that follow-up letters would be sent to clarify the situation.
One Syrian man, whose lawyer received a letter from a Home Office immigration enforcement team based in Glasgow on 19 January, said he had been frightened and upset after reading it.
“I was in despair when I received it and have not slept for almost a week thinking about what will happen to me if I’m forced to go to Rwanda,” he said.
The man arrived in the UK more than 18 months ago and many other Syrians who arrived at a similar time have had their cases fast-tracked and have received grants of refugee status.
The letter states that the man may be removable to Rwanda as part of the migration and economic development partnership between Rwanda and the UK and that Rwanda has agreed to accept him.
It adds: “We will therefore not be admitting your client’s case to the UK system at this time.”
Asylum seekers may be fearful of being sent to Rwanda, but many say the threat of being forcibly removed would not act as a deterrent. There were fewer Channel crossings in small boats in 2023 than in 2022, but there have been reports that more asylum seekers have turned to lorries and other routes to reach the UK because of increased security at the French border.
Maria Wilby, the director of Refugee, Asylum Seeker and Migrant Action, said several of her clients had received the Home Office letters. She also said that one of the original letters sent to asylum seekers in 2022 had resulted in one trying to take their own life.
“The impact of letters telling people they will be sent to Rwanda is significant and cannot be ignored,” she said. “To admit these letters were a mistake does nothing to mitigate the suffering of those who received them.”
Ben Nelson, a lawyer at Duncan Lewis, said some of his clients had also received the letters. “Such correspondence not only has a detrimental impact on asylum seekers’ mental health, but also gives them no indication as to when, or even if, their claim will ever be substantively considered in the UK, after waiting, in some individuals’ cases, for 18 months without any progress on their claims,” he said.
The shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, said the government was in disarray.
“This latest mistake of accidentally sending out letters to asylum seekers could lead to yet more legal delays, and they clearly don’t have a plan in place to get flights to Rwanda off the ground,” he said.
“They may seek to blame our legal system, the French, the opposition and even football pundits, but the reality is that the buck stops with a gaff-prone home secretary and a prime minister painfully out of his depth.”