Children could be deported to Rwanda with their families to claim asylum because of fears that excluding them could be exploited by people smugglers, the immigration minister has told MPs.
Robert Jenrick said the Government had to balance the “challenge” of sending children to Rwanda against the risk that people smugglers would target families to entice them to cross the Channel if ministers did not include them in the scheme.
He said unaccompanied children would be excluded but explained that ministers were still weighing whether to remove families with children, dispelling previous claims that it would only be male migrants who will be sent on a one-way ticket to Rwanda.
Mr Jenrick told the women and equalities committee: “There is a balance we need to consider which is the challenge of minors leaving the country to go to Rwanda against the risk that the UK will become a magnet for people traffickers focusing on families.
“There is a very real concern if the Rwanda policy was fully operationalised, I would not want to see a situation where adult males were deterred from coming to the UK but people smugglers continued their operations but with a particular focus on families. There’s a range of risks as a result of that. So we will give further thought to our approach in that respect.”
Asked by committee chair Caroline Nokes, a former immigration minister, if there was a risk that single males would acquire children to traffic as a way to get into the UK, Mr Jenrick said: “That’s a very real concern.”
He acknowledged flights to Rwanda would remain on hold until the Court of Appeal ruled on the legality of the policy later this year. He disclosed just 3.5 per cent of the Channel migrants served with a notice of intent that they would be sent to Rwanda were women.
It came as more migrants arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel. Groups of people wearing life jackets and some wrapped in blankets were pictured being brought into Dover, Kent, on a Border Force boat amid calm conditions at sea.
Government figures show that so far this year 592 migrants have arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel, with activity recorded on only three days in January. This is compared with the 1,339 people who made the journey in the first month of 2022.
On Wednesday leading charities called for an independent inquiry into how more than 200 asylum-seeking children have gone “missing” from Home Office hotels, describing the situation as “a child protection scandal”.
In a letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed by more than 100 organisations, the charities warned that the children - many of whom had been living in southern seaside towns - were at risk of exploitation.
Their letter urges Mr Sunak to end the practice of housing young refugees who have been separated from their families in Home Office hotels, and instead place them with specialist local authority teams who can protect them.
Co-ordinated by ECPAT UK and the Refugee Council, the open letter has been signed by charities including the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, Coram, The Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau.
People smugglers made £183 million from small boat crossings last year, according to new analysis from Labour. Gangs made an estimated hundred-fold increase in profits in the space of four years as the number of people crossing to Britain in small boats reached a record high of 45,756 in 2022. The official total for 2018 was just 299.
The average cost smugglers charged last year to cross the Channel was £4,000, leading to record income of £183 million, according to analysis of French police data by Labour — up from just over £1 million in 2018.
Almost 1,000 migrants have crossed so far this month, after 373 migrants arrived on Wednesday. They arrived in eight boats, an average of nearly 50 per boat, which is higher than usual for this time of the year. The French coastguard prevented a further 31 crossing the Channel on Wednesday.
Labour has pledged to use the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which allows for the confiscation or civil recovery of proceeds from crime, to target gangs facilitating small-boat crossings.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the party would create a National Crime Agency unit to pursue criminal prosecutions and track down and seize the assets of criminal gangs.
The specialist officers would be based both in the UK and on the Continent, increasing Britain’s presence in countries including France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Albania.
Ms Cooper said: “The Conservatives have allowed an entire multimillion-pound dangerous criminal industry to grow up along our border. Criminals are making big money from putting tens of thousands of lives at risk and making a mockery of UK border security. Shockingly, the government has allowed the gangs to proliferate and their profits to soar."