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The Home Office will launch a UK-wide operation on Monday to detain asylum seekers in preparation to remove them to Rwanda.

A government official on Sunday confirmed the plan, which had been expected to start some weeks from now after Rishi Sunak said last Monday it would take until July for the first removal flights to Kigali to commence.

The prime minister is facing a tough week as the Conservatives brace for potentially devastating losses in the local and mayoral elections happening on Thursday.

Last week Sunak finally secured parliamentary approval for his Rwanda legislation, which underpins his contentious plan to send some asylum seekers to Kigali.

He hopes the plan will deter migrants coming to the UK on small boats across the English Channel.

The two-week exercise starting on Monday, first reported by the Guardian, will involve holding asylum seekers who arrive at immigration service offices for scheduled meetings. Other individuals will be selected for removal throughout the UK.

All the asylum seekers identified for removal will be transferred to detention centres ahead of flights to take them to Rwanda.

Tory insiders dismissed suggestions the detention operation was being expedited to give the party a boost ahead of the local elections.

The Home Office declined to confirm the start of the exercise, but acknowledged the government was “entering the final phase of operationalising this landmark policy to tackle illegal migration and stop the boats” following the Rwanda act becoming law and the ratification of a new UK-Rwanda treaty in recent days.

“At some stage, inevitably, this will include detaining people in preparation for the first flight, which is set to take off to Rwanda in 10 to 12 weeks,” the Home Office said.

The move sparked an angry response from campaigners. Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said ministers were “determined to recklessly pursue its inhumane Rwanda plan despite the cost, chaos and human misery it will unleash”, warning the policy could spark a “catastrophic system meltdown”.

Labour on Sunday highlighted Home Office figures showing 2024 was the first year since records began in 2018 that more than 7,000 people had arrived in the UK by small boats before the end of April.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said it was proof Sunak’s “plan is not working”.

However Sunak claimed a rise in asylum seekers heading to Ireland showed that his government’s Rwanda policy was “already having an impact” as a deterrent.

He told Sky News an increase in arrivals in Ireland suggested “people are worried about coming here” to Britain due to his flagship scheme.

Micheál Martin, Ireland’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, said last week that asylum seekers were pursuing “sanctuary here and within the European Union as opposed to the potential of being deported to Rwanda”.

Helen McEntee, Ireland’s justice minister, has said more than 80 per cent of asylum seekers enter the country through Northern Ireland.

There is no physical land border on the island of Ireland, which Dublin pushed hard to maintain during Brexit negotiations in order not to imperil Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal.

Immigration has become a flashpoint issue in Ireland, where a general election is due by early next year.

James Cleverly, UK home secretary, and McEntee will discuss the issue on Monday on the sidelines of a British-Irish conference in London.

McEntee will also bring emergency legislation to the Irish cabinet on Tuesday to enable asylum seekers to be returned to Britain.

A UK government official said the UK did not intend to comply with such returns, saying: “We won’t accept any asylum returns from the EU via Ireland until the EU accepts that we can send them back to France.”

The Irish High Court ruled last month that the Irish government’s designation of the UK as a “safe third country” where asylum seekers could be returned was unlawful.

Policing minister Chris Philp admitted public sentiment was not favourable to the Conservatives ahead of the local elections in England and Wales.

“Clearly, at the moment, people do feel grumpy with the government,” he told the BBC.

He insisted voters would not consider the poll a “referendum on grumpiness” but “a choice: who do you want to run the country?” Sunak on Sunday declined to rule out a July general election.

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