Rishi Sunak vows to overcome Rwanda hurdles as UK ditches 150 asylum hotels

Alternative sites for asylum accommodation include the Bibby Stockholm barge off Portland in Dorset (PA Archive)
Alternative sites for asylum accommodation include the Bibby Stockholm barge off Portland in Dorset (PA Archive)

Some 150 hotels will no longer be needed to house asylum-seekers, the Government said on Wednesday, as Rishi Sunak vowed to get his Rwanda plan off the ground.

The Prime Minister insisted deportation flights would start soon to take cross-Channel migrants to the East African nation, after much-contested legislation returns to the Commons next week.

However, fresh trouble hit the scheme after reports that Rwanda has been selling off flats earmarked for the migrants, and that its state-owned airline has refused to fly them over from Britain due to potential damage to its brand.

But at home, Home Secretary James Cleverly claimed progress in announcing that the 150 hotels would be returned to their operators by the beginning of May.

Asylum claimants are being moved to larger sites - including disused military barracks and the Bibby Stockholm barge off Portland in Dorset - and the private rented sector.

There are now 20,000 fewer asylum seekers in hotels than six months ago, down from more than 56,000 at the end of September 2023, the Home Office said, although numbers crossing the Channel on small boats are at record highs.

The hotel accommodation has been costing more than £8 million a day, contributing to £4.3billion being diverted from the overseas aid budget to support refugees in the UK last year, according to new figures.

Mr Cleverly said: “We promised to end the use of asylum hotels and house asylum seekers at more appropriate, cheaper accommodation; we are doing that at a rapid pace.

“These closures deliver on the government’s plan to cut the use of hotels in the asylum system and we will keep going until the last hotel is closed.”

The Home Office refuses to say how many hotels are being used in total but has been shifting claimants to new sites including two disused RAF airfields, Scampton in Lincolnshire and Wethersfield in Mr Cleverly’s own constituency in Essex.

Before becoming Home Secretary, he condemned the earmarked use of the site, and last month his department said numbers there would be capped at 800 single men.

The Home Office said on Wednesday that RAF Scampton would receive “a smaller number of asylum seekers… for the shortest possible time in response to local concerns”, with further talks planned with the district council soon.

More broadly, Mr Sunak hopes to produce a major breakthrough in his pre-election battle against rising numbers of migrants and asylum claimants by seeing the first Rwanda flights take off in the coming weeks.

“I’m committed to stopping the boats, we need to have a deterrent so that if people come here illegally, they can’t stay, they’ll be removed,” he told reporters a day after meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 10 Downing Street.

“That’s why Rwanda is so important. That’s why I’m determined to see it through,” the PM said, stressing that it would be “a deterrent and ultimately end the unfairness of people jumping the queue, coming here illegally, putting pressure on local services, and risking their own lives”.

“None of that’s right. None of it’s fair. None of it’s compassionate either, to do nothing, and our plan is the right one.”

But Labour argues the Rwanda plan is a “gimmick” and says it would instead work more closely with European allies and on law enforcement to stop the boats.

Stephen Kinnock MP, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, said: "So-called 'asylum hotels' didn't exist before the Tories lost control of the asylum backlog, and Rishi Sunak promised to end them by the end of 2023. Yet here we are with around 250 still in use come mid-April.

"Our comprehensive plan to end the Tory asylum chaos will create a new cross-border police unit and security partnership with Europol to smash the criminal smuggler gangs that are running our borders, and deliver a new Returns Unit to faster remove people with no right to be here."