Hundreds of foreign criminals have disappeared off the Home Office’s radar after being released into the community.
New figures show immigration authorities lost track of nearly 500 overseas nationals, including rapists and violent offenders, in just over two years.
They were facing removal from the UK after serving prison sentences for their crimes.
Data obtained by the Press Association following a Freedom of Information request show a total of 494 foreign national offenders (FNOs) “absconded” while they were subject to deportation action from 2014 to the end of March 2016.
Many were later located but, as of last month, the whereabouts of more than 200 were still unknown – up to four years after contact with officials first ceased.
If there is no immediate prospect of deportation or removal, a foreign criminal who has completed their custodial sentence can be released into the community.
They are required to report to the Home Office at set times and can be subject to bail conditions and electronic monitoring.
Offenders are recorded as having absconded if their whereabouts are unknown and all procedures to re-establish contact have failed.
Figures released to the Press Association by the Home Office last week – nearly two years after they were originally requested – show 169 FNOs absconded in 2014, followed by 250 in 2015, and 75 in the first three months of 2016.
The statistics show 196 male absconders remained unfound as of February 9 this year.
Fifteen females who absconded in 2014 and 2015, plus an unspecified number of five or fewer who absconded in 2016, were also yet to be tracked down.
FNOs with convictions for violence, rape and other sexual crimes, fraud, money laundering, possession of weapons, burglary, forgery, motoring offences and handling stolen goods were among those unaccounted for as of last month.
Exact figures were not disclosed for most categories, including rape, as they were not specified when the number was five or lower.
Where statistics were given, they showed six violent criminals were still to be traced after absconding in 2014.
A total of 59 offenders with convictions for drug-related crimes absconded over the full 27-month period, while 18 robbers disappeared in 2014 and 2015.
The Home Office refused to provide data on the nationalities of FNOs on the basis that disclosure could undermine agreements with other countries and prejudice the operation of immigration controls.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton, a member of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said: “It is extraordinary that the Home Office has allowed so many convicted foreign offenders who clearly have no place to remain in the UK to roam free to do as they wish whilst paperwork for their deportation is being sorted.
“There should be a fast track deportation system from the prison to the plane with clear information sharing to make sure they do not gain entry again.”
He added: “It is particularly unconvincing that the Home Office will not reveal the nationalities of those involved in the interests of not harming diplomatic relations with their home countries.
“Surely we need to know where they are coming from to impress upon the authorities in those countries that they need to do a better job of looking after their own criminals rather than expecting us to play the generous host.”
Shortcomings in arrangements for keeping track of foreign criminals living in the community were flagged up in a report from the immigration watchdog last year.
It found offenders can fail to attend meetings with staff on as many as 19 occasions before the alarm is raised, while planned removals were often frustrated by last-minute legal challenges.
Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of Migration Watch UK, said: “What these figures show, yet again, is that this Government, like its predecessors, is doing too little to remove those with no right to be here, including foreign national offenders.”
The Home Office said more than 41,000 foreign offenders have been removed from the country since 2010, including a record 6,346 in 2016-17.
A spokeswoman said: “This week, like every week, more than 100 foreign criminals will be removed from the UK.
“We never give up trying to locate absconders and we are overhauling the reporting system.
“We’ve introduced measures in the Immigration Act 2016 which will mean that in the future, all non-detained foreign nationals subject to deportation proceedings or a deportation order will be electronically monitored.”