Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern

THE number of would-be refugees being deported has dramatically fallen even though more than 6,000 failed asylum- seekers are classified as "evading deportation".

Immigration sources said it appeared a much softer approach was now being taken when it came to enforcing deportation orders, with only 43 people returned to their home in the first five months of the year.

The numbers have shown a six-fold decline compared to 2004, when 599 people were deported. This year, the number is not expected to exceed 100, the lowest since large numbers of asylum-seekers began arriving in the state around a decade ago.

In the past five and a half years, successive ministers have signed a total of 8,196 deportation orders, the Department of Justice said. Only 25% of them have been implemented with 2,066 people sent home, some on specially chartered aircraft and others on scheduled flights.

So-called "mass deportations" also appear to have been phased out with only eight asylum-seekers deported. The departmental figures also reveal that since the beginning of 2003, a massive 6,173 people have either vanished or failed to appear for deportation.

Gardaí believe many of them have left the country to travel to England or another EU state but many others have melted in to the realms of Ireland's undocumented workers.

The Department of Justice said there was no single reason for the major decline that had been seen in the number of deportations. However, some gardaí believe a more hands-off approach was being taken because of the enormous costs involved in forcibly removing people from the state. Each deportation costs an average of €3,300 according to official figures, but that is only a fraction of the actual cost involved.

One officer said: "For every deportation, you will have the operation involved in actually finding the person and then detaining them at significant cost for a later flight. At the moment, we are forced to accommodate these people in prisons at huge costs in terms of accommodation and transportation.

"When they are removed from the state, it is not possible to allow them to travel on their own and a number of officers will have to accompany them. It's a major drain on resources."

The Department of Justice said the deportation decline partly reflected the dramatic fall off in the numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in the state. However, that does not explain the thousands of unenforced deportation orders, one senior garda said.

A statement from the Department of Justice said: "In the first instance, there has been a decrease in the number of asylum applications received in the state. For example, 3,985 applications were received in 2007, a 7.6% decrease on the figure of 4,314 in 2006.

"At the same time, there has been a substantial increase in the numbers choosing to return voluntarily to their home countries. In 2007, 417 persons opted to return home voluntarily, an increase of 75% on 2006."