More than 160,000 asylum seekers in the UK are awaiting decisions on their claims, according to official data published on Thursday, piling new pressure on the government to deliver on its pledge to clear the record backlog.
Home Office figures showed only 23,800 decisions on asylum applications were taken in 2022, contributing to a 60 per cent year-on-year build-up in the number of outstanding claims, which now stand at 160,919.
The data comes as Rishi Sunak is preparing to take the UK to the “boundaries” of international law in order to reduce the number of people arriving in England by small boats across the Channel.
Reaction to the figures was swift and critical from all sides of a debate that has become a thorn in the side of the prime minister, whose first months in office saw a new record for Channel crossings.
Migration Watch, a think-tank that has lobbied for lower migration, said the government would “pay a heavy price for failing yet again to control and reduce immigration, despite their repeated promises”.
But the jump in the asylum backlog is only partially explained by the number of new claims, which at 74,800 last year was below its peak 20 years ago.
The processing of asylum claims has been slowing for years, with the average time per case reaching 20 months by 2021, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. This has left many refugees stuck in hotel accommodation at a cost to the Treasury of almost £6mn a day and mounting, according to government officials.
“Processing has been particularly slow in the UK. There’s no single explanation for this, but reasons include low morale and high turnover among Home Office case workers, the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, and extra steps in the asylum process that the government added in early 2021,” said Peter Walsh, senior researcher at the Migration Observatory.
The Home Office on Wednesday announced emergency measures scrapping the need for asylum applicants from five war-torn countries to attend in-person interviews.
People from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen who are awaiting asylum decisions will instead be required to complete a questionnaire.
The changes were welcomed by the UNHCR, which has been calling for a more targeted response.
“Through the application of the new streamlined procedures, thousands of refugees who have waited months or even years in limbo should finally receive decisions on their claims,” said Vicky Tennant, UK representative for the UN refugee agency.
Afghans made up the largest number of people arriving across the Channel by small boat in the last quarter of 2022 at about 30 per cent, followed by Iranians, Iraqis and then Albanians, who made up 9 per cent.
Marley Morris, associate director for migration, trade and communities at the Institute for Public Policy Research, another think-tank, said the backlog painted “a dire picture of the inadequacies of our asylum system”.
He also welcome the fast-track approach for some cases but warned that, if not handled fairly, it could “backfire and create more confusion and delays”.
The Home Office said it was working to speed up processing of claims and had recruited hundreds of new staff to “crack through cases”.
“As part of these efforts to speed up the asylum process for high-grant nationalities, 12,000 asylum seekers who have made legacy asylum claims will be asked to provide details in a new Home Office questionnaire to help determine their case.”
“If they do not reply, their asylum claim could be withdrawn,” it added.