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The Home Office’s updated guidance on ‘voluntary departures’ including to Rwanda

The Home Office has updated its guidance on voluntary returns, now re-named voluntary departures which now includes the possibility of sending those who agree to a safe third country. Although not explicitly named in the guidance, the intention is clearly to try to get people to agree to go to Rwanda.

Increasing the number of voluntary departures from the UK has been a goal of the hostile environment since it was introduced. Despite this, voluntary departures have declined year-on-year, having risen only recently following COVID. In the year ending 2023, figures suggest around 17,000 people voluntarily departed from the UK.

This article looks at the main changes introduced by the amended guidance and provides an overview of the voluntary departures scheme.

What are the changes?

A comparison of the new and old versions of the guidance shows that the most significant change is the expansion of the scope of possible removal destinations to include not just a person’s home country but also any other safe third country or country they are admissible to. Accordingly, all references to voluntary ‘return’ have been changed to voluntary ‘departure’.

This means that individuals can now be encouraged to accept voluntary departure to a country they have no attachment to but that is considered by the Home Office to be ‘safe’. Clearly, this relates to the government policy on Rwanda and apparently a new and separate agreement has been made in respect of these proposed voluntary departures.

The guidance has also been updated in respect of EU nationals, stating that the scheme is available to those who did not avail themselves of the EU settlement scheme.

What is the difference between voluntary and assisted departure?

Voluntary departure refers to any “non-enforced” departure of an immigration offender (i.e. an overstayer) or their family member. Departure can be at their own or public expense, for example where someone cannot afford to pay for their flight.

An assisted departure is a subcategory of this whereby the individual requires greater assistance to depart from the UK. For example, someone with complex needs who requires financial support to sustain their departure or someone from a country on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development list of ‘developing’ countries.

Currently, the Home Office can provide up to £3,000 in reintegration support for those who are eligible.

Who is eligible?

Generally, the scheme applies to non-detained people who are in the UK without leave because they have overstayed or have made an application that was ultimately unsuccessful. It can also apply to those with pending or withdrawn applications such as an asylum claim.  

The guidance explains that caseworkers have a duty to continually highlight the scheme in correspondence and decisions. This raises questions around how the information is provided to individuals and especially whether it might unduly pressure someone with an ongoing claim into agreeing to leave. This article is particularly helpful in considering whether voluntary departures can truly be considered ‘voluntary’.

The Voluntary Returns Service facilitates the returns process and people can refer themselves by phone or email.

The scheme excludes individuals who have an ongoing police investigation or impending prosecution, as well as British nationals or those with Humanitarian Protection or refugee status. The scheme also excludes unaccompanied children if there are no ‘adequate’ facilities in the country of return. Arguably, there is a lack of scrutiny of what is considered adequate in the case of children. 

Where someone has been convicted and given a deport order their case is more likely to remain with the foreign national offenders return command (FNORC) and follow deport or facilitated return procedure. There is no appeal process for refused applications.

Family departures

The scheme includes family members including children. Every member of the family who is over 18 must consent and those aged 16 or 17 do not require their parents’ consent if they can express their own views.

Caseworkers must make checks with the local authority and with CAFCASS to see if there are any barriers to removal such as ongoing care proceedings or parental disputes about care. The reliability of this research depends on a local authority record keeping and there is a risk that ongoing proceedings may not be picked up on.

The impact of voluntary departure

Anyone using this process will be subject to a re-entry ban. If the person paid for their own departure they will face a one year ban. If the return was at public expense it can be two to five years, with some exceptions such as the person being under 18 at the time they overstayed.  

Conclusion

The voluntary departure scheme generally raises questions about consent, the risk posed to children, and the capacity of individuals to agree to the process. The fact that these changes have been made in yet another attempt to get someone onto a plane to Rwanda is even more concerning. Anyone who is contacted in relation to a voluntary removal to Rwanda is urged to seek legal advice before responding, ask the Home Office to send the offer in writing and do not agree to anything over the phone.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Katherine Soroya

Katherine Soroya

Katherine Soroya is a Senior Immigration Caseworker at Turpin & Miller, an Oxford-based specialist immigration firm. Katherine undertakes a wide range of Legal Aid immigration work and has a particular interest in complex trafficking matters.

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