The newspaper’s lead story on Wednesday said that thousands of asylum seekers have “skipped their first meeting with border chiefs and vanished” after “giving authorities the slip”.
But its claim has been dismissed by the Home Office, which says the data it gave The Express provided no evidence that anyone disappeared.
The Express based its claim on the Home Office’s most recent ‘Asylum Transparency Data’ which says that one in six asylum applicants fail to attend their first asylum appointment - the equivalent of 11,988 current cases.
It claimed the “shocking statistic” had “emerged” after it obtained the information under Freedom of Information laws, but the figure was in fact publicly available on the Home Office website over a month ago.
The Express story, headlined online as: ‘REVEALED: immigration crisis laid bare’ claimed thousands of asylum seekers had “disappeared from under the noses of immigration officials”, including migrants who had tried to “sneak into the UK”.
Comments on the story from readers on the Express website included calls for “an army within our borders to seek them out and remove with maximum force”.
One reader expressed fears of “illegal asylum seekers running wild unchallenged and unchecked”.
The newspaper quoted an MP concerned that the asylum seekers could be “dragged into the black economy”.
But the Home Office said there was no evidence to support the claim that asylum seekers have vanished, and that the one in six figure the Express used only reflected “the proportion of people who simply didn’t attend a first interview”.
That figure includes people who have attended subsequent meetings after missing their first appointment and doesn’t mean people have dropped off the radar, it explained.
A Home Office Spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “It is wholly incorrect to say this figure is the number of asylum seekers who are missing.”
A second spokesperson said the Express had made an “assumption”.
The charity Refugee Council said it was “extremely concerning” that discredited information was being “reported as fact on the front page”.
It said that asylum seekers often fail to attend appointments because they have not been notified of them, or don’t have the money to pay for transport to attend them.
Policy Manager Judith Dennis said: “It’s extremely concerning that information which the Government has discredited as wholly incorrect is being reported as fact on the front page of a newspaper.
“There are many legitimate reasons why people may miss appointments with the Home Office; they may never have actually been informed about the appointment in the first place, they may not have been able to arrange childcare or they simply may not have had the bus fare to get there.
“As the Government acknowledges; people will then attend subsequent appointments so it’s completely inaccurate to pretend that they’ve somehow vanished.
“Let’s not forget: asylum seekers have fled here in fear of their lives and are simply looking for refuge. Whipping up a climate of fear and hostility against them is as dangerous as it is distasteful.”
The Home Office added that it pursues anyone who deliberately misses their first appointment, and these people must then apply for asylum again, saying: “Prior to 2009, there was no mechanism in place to trace absconders.
“We now have a dedicated national absconder tracing team which works closely with the police, other government agencies and commercial companies to track down, arrest and return absconders to custody.”