UK Politics

Immigrants disappearing at UK border - Margaret Hodge

Heathrow border control Image copyright Reuters

The Home Office has hit back at claims by a senior MP that immigrants who have failed border checks are escaping from holding pens and absconding.

Margaret Hodge said figures obtained by The Telegraph showed that 3,527 people with incorrect visas or false passports had disappeared.

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee said they could have escaped from "holding pens" at Heathrow.

But the Home Office said nobody had done so.

A source in the department said holding areas had been introduced earlier this year at Heathrow to deal with "low-risk" immigrants who had a problem with their visa or passport.

Anyone thought to be "high-risk" was still taken away to a secure holding room for further questioning, the source added, and so far no one had absconded from the low-risk area.

The data obtained by The Telegraph suggested the total number of immigrants who had absconded had gone down from 9,362 in 2010 to 3,527 last year.

'Nonsense'

But the record for catching those who disappeared had got worse, with 58% of them subsequently being caught in 2010, compared with 24% last year.

During a committee hearing, Labour's Mrs Hodge said: "Of those 3,527, only 846 were found, which means that three out of four disappeared. They remain at large.

"That seems to me such a basic thing. If you stop somebody at the border, you don't let them then get through and escape, and disappear into nothingness."

Mrs Hodge suggested it was relatively easy for those being held at Heathrow to "jump out of the pen" and "disappear", adding: "We are not talking about illegals coming in in the back of lorries. These are people stopped at the border."

She went on: "In the context of what we are worrying about, with British jihadists, it's a nonsense that somebody comes and had their check questioned and then jump out of the pen."

The Home Office's top civil servant, Mark Sedwill said he had not been briefed to answer questions on the figures, as the session was meant to be about progress in reforming the Border Agency, which is being absorbed back into the Home Office after being scrapped last year.

He told the committee the number of migrants who escaped from holding pens was likely to be "tiny" - and far more went missing because border officials had no legal right to detain them.

"We don't have the legal authority to indefinitely detain everybody who we encounter at the border who we think is in breach of one of our laws to enter the UK.

"Not all of them are escaping from detention. That isn't in all cases part of our powers.

"They may have travelled, for example, on a false document, and then claimed asylum at the border."

But he promised the committee he would look into figures and get back to them.

Mandie Campbell, director general of immigration enforcement at the Home Office, said not all of the 3,527 identified by the Freedom of Information request had been detained after being stopped at the border.

Some had been granted temporary admission "because their case can't be dealt with on that day and then they fail to comply", she told the committee.

On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs new powers were needed to seize terrorist suspects' passports and stop British-born extremists from returning to the UK.

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