How many people were ‘deported’ from the UK in 2023?

25 March 2024
What was claimed

The government has deported 24,000 illegal migrants.

Our verdict

This figure appears to be out of date, and needs context. It seems to be based on ad-hoc data on enforced and voluntary returns of people who did not have the right to stay in the UK in 2023—more recent official figures show the number was actually 25,646. But only a minority of these returns meet the official definition of “deportation”, and many were people leaving the UK of their own accord, independently of immigration authorities.

At last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed the government had “deported 24,000 illegal migrants”.

Number 10 has not responded to our attempts to confirm the source of this figure, but the Home Office told us it appeared to be based on ad-hoc data, published at the start of January, showing the total number of enforced and voluntary returns of people who did not have the right to stay in the UK in 2023.

This ad-hoc data shows a total of 24,204 returns. However official immigration statistics since published by the Home Office show that in 2023 there were 25,646 enforced and voluntary returns from the UK, as well as 24,587 port returns (people refused entry to the UK, who did not pass through border control).

If Mr Sunak was referring to the ad-hoc data, as suggested by the Home Office, he appears to have used “deported” broadly, as a catch-all term for enforced and voluntary returns. But not all returns meet the official definition of a “deportation”.

The Home Office states: “The term ‘deportations’ refers to a legally defined subset of returns, which are enforced either following a criminal conviction, or when it is judged that a person’s removal from the UK is beneficial to the public good.”

Immigration statistics do not show exactly how many of the 25,646 enforced and voluntary returns from the UK last year were actually “deportations”. (We’ve asked the Home Office about this and will update this fact check if we hear back.) We do however know that enforced returns—the category of returns which includes deportations—account for a minority (25%) of the total.

Use of official information without appropriate context and caveats can damage public trust in both official information and politicians. Ministers should use official information transparently and with all relevant context and caveats when a claim is first made, and quickly rectify oversights when they occur. This isn’t the first time the Prime Minister has failed to be clear when talking about immigration returns.

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Breaking down returns statistics

Returns of people who are in the UK without a right to stay here fall into two broad categories: enforced returns (those carried out by the Home Office), and voluntary returns (those where someone liable to be returned leaves of their own accord, either with or without support from the Home Office).

Three quarters of returns in 2023 (19,253) were voluntary returns.

Of these, almost two-thirds (12,472) are counted as “other verified returns”. That means they involved people who left of their own accord without formally informing the Home Office (which the Migration Observatory says means they departed independently of immigration authorities).

The Home Office notes that “other verified returns” figures for more recent periods are subject to “significant upward revision” as more cases are identified.

Why are people returned from the UK?

Mr Sunak described those included in his figure as “illegal migrants”. We’ve asked Number 10 what he meant by this.

In reality there are multiple reasons why someone might be subject to removal from the UK, including: 

  • entering or attempting to enter the UK illegally
  • being subject to deportation action due to a serious criminal conviction
  • overstaying their period of legal right to remain in the UK
  • breaching their conditions of leave
  • being refused asylum.

The Home Office does not provide a full breakdown of the reason for returns—for example, we don’t know how many people were previously in the UK legally, and were returned because they overstayed their visa, or breached the terms of their leave to remain.

We also don’t know how long people who were returned were in the UK for without the right to be there—these figures could include people who left the UK only a few days after their visa expired, as well as those who stayed in the UK for years after their visa expired before leaving.

The Home Office does however publish data on the number of returns of foreign national offenders (FNO), and the number of asylum-related returns.

These figures show that in 2023, 3,926 FNOs were returned from the UK—15% of all enforced and voluntary returns. There was a roughly even split between the number of returned FNOs who are EU nationals, and those who are non-EU nationals.

The data also shows that there were 5,872 asylum-related returns—23% of the total. These include asylum seekers whose cases were rejected or withdrawn, as well as those who had an asylum application approved but were later returned for another reason (for example, a criminal conviction).

Approximately 7% of all enforced and voluntary returns last year (1,889) were of people who arrived in the UK by small boat.

Image courtesy of Eric Fischer

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Rishi Sunak to request a correction regarding this claim.

We are waiting to hear back from him.

It’s not good enough.

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