In December 2022, Rishi Sunak pledged to tackle the remaining legacy asylum backlog, which had more than 92,000 cases of people who had claimed asylum before 28 June 2022 still waiting for an initial decision.
Most of these legacy backlog cases have now been resolved, with a reported 4,500 still marked as awaiting an initial decision. Altogether, just over 112,000 asylum cases were processed in 2023.
But, while those who’ve campaigned for years for the UK government to address the backlog acknowledge the speed with which the backlog appears to be dwindling, they are deeply uneasy about the way it’s being done. The single-minded fixation on slashing the numbers, they say, is belying a sloppy, rushed decision process that is doing more to kick the can than to address the actual issues - and despite figures being shuffled around, the number of people stuck in different parts of the UK’s immigration system is not much different.
In its drive to meet targets and fulfil promises, the Home Office rushed the decisions, quickly labelling most applications as either withdrawn, refused, or accepted. In the third quarter of 2023, 29,000 proper decisions were made, a huge jump from the 5,169 decisions made during the same quarter the previous year.
“It’s really positive,” Colin Yeo, a leading immigration barrister at Garden Court Chambers, tells The Lead. “We’ve been saying that the Home Office needs to get on with making decisions and finally they have done that. And we’re complaining again.”
Yeo and others in the immigration and asylum sectors expect the rapid increase in decision making will bring with it four significant problems.
First, there is the issue that a significant chunk of cases were not actually resolved, but rather paused, or withdrawn - ostensibly, by the asylum seekers themselves. Statistics show that of 112,138 initial asylum decisions made between January and 28 December 2023, 35,119 were “non-substantive decisions” including withdrawn or paused applications – an 11% increase from 2022. But withdrawal is not as straightforward as it sounds.
“Some withdrawals are voluntary,” Daniel Sohege of Stand for All tells The Lead. “This could be for multiple reasons, including that they feel it is better to return to a place of persecution rather than remain in the UK asylum system - we see this quite often.”
Other applications are “forced withdrawals”.
“One of the key ways in which these are occurring is that if someone fails to turn up to an appointment with the Home Office, they can have their claims withdrawn,” Sohege says. “The problem is that quite often they may not even know they have an appointment.”
Sohege described cases where letters have been sent to hotels without names, and where letters notifying of appointments have arrived after the appointment date.
“There is also an issue for many of getting to appointments,” he continued. “Due to the low levels of asylum support some are unable to afford the transport to get to an appointment. They are meant to be reimbursed for certain travel costs, but if you don’t have the money to pay in the first place this isn't much help.”
By quickly labelling a case as withdrawn, the Home Office is only making more work for itself later down the line. After their case has been withdrawn, the asylum seeker can either work to get the case reinstated (which would require legal support) or make a fresh claim.
“These people’s cases will still need to be dealt with,” Yeo said. “In the short-term, it’s reducing the backlog, but at the expense of creating long-term problems for itself because it will take more work in the future to deal with those cases. And the cases will be worse when they come back later because they will have got more complicated over time.”
Not only will many withdrawals lead to people re-applying for asylum, but they will also impact the wellbeing of asylum seekers.
“They’ll get evicted from their accommodation and they won’t be eligible for support by the local authority,” said Yeo.
It’s at this point that Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, policy and public affairs manager at Praxis, says asylum seekers often disengage.
“They end up in the shadows, at severe risk of destitution and exploitation,” she tells The Lead.
Newly recognised refugees
According to figures, 51,469 people would have had seemingly positive news that their asylum claims had been granted by the Home Office in 2023.
“They are granted five years’ leave to remain which can lead to permanent settlement after that,” Zoe Gardner, a migration and asylum policy specialist, tells The Lead. “They have recourse to public funds, housing support and in theory could apply for family reunification to bring immediate family to join them, although complicated, expensive and slow.”
Although good news for those who could have been waiting for upwards of 18 months in poor accommodation without the right to work, they are then thrown into a system that they must adapt to very quickly.
With luck, they will have support from lawyers, NGOs, family and their local community to help them with housing, work and ongoing mental health support. But for those without that network around them, getting a positive asylum decision could be a stressful and disorientating time.
“They get very short notice – only 28 days – before they are evicted from asylum accommodation,” Peter William Walsh of The Migration Observatory tells The Lead. “It’s often insufficient time to find a job, receive benefits, or secure accommodation, so many end up homeless or supported by their local authorities.”
Normally, Yeo says, there would be an expected number of granted asylum decisions coming through and local authorities could “kind of” cope.
“They [local authorities] were used to it,” Yeo says. “But because suddenly the Home Office increased the speed of decision making so rapidly in such a short space of time, there are suddenly loads of these people all presenting as homeless at the same time. It’s a problem caused by this bulge.”
Then there are the 25,550 people in 2023 who were told their asylum applications had been refused, who have a window of 14 days to appeal the refusal.
“Most will lodge appeals, which must then be processed,” explains Walsh. “Waiting times [to appeal] were already approaching two years even before this rapid increase in the number of refusals. If they are destitute, they must be supported by the Home Office during that time.”
To lodge an appeal, it is to the advantage of the asylum seeker to get legal representation, a difficult feat even prior to increased number of decisions due to the lack of legal aid available.
“They just can’t get help with their appeals, which means there is a real danger of miscarriages of justice,” says Yeo.
Over half of cases are found to be in the asylum seeker’s favour, meaning the initial refusal was wrong.
“Given the expedited system that has been used for this cohort there is a risk that an even higher proportion than usual have been refused,” Gardner worries.
Failed asylum seekers at end of process
Once appeal rights have been exhausted, in theory the person who had sought asylum in the UK should be returned to their country of origin.
“In some cases, this isn’t possible because the country of origin won’t issue travel documents or takes a long time to do so,” Gardner says. “In that case they receive what's called section 4 support which is even less support than those in the asylum system and they have to report regularly to the Home Office, but they basically stay in limbo long-term.”
At any time while they are reporting, they could be detained with no notice, but detention has to be used only when there is a real prospect of removal within a reasonable timeframe.
In reality, very few people are actually removed. Latest statistics show that of the 4,460 applications submitted in 2020 and had been refused (including after appeal), only 425 had been recorded as having left the UK by June 2022, which is the latest period of data.
“It’s hard to remove people,” Yeo said. “It’s violent. You have to do a dawn raid because they often won’t go voluntarily. You have to detain them and force them onto a flight. But you can’t force them onto a passenger flight now because a lot of passengers are uncomfortable with that, so you end up chartering flights to different countries. It’s very expensive. And of course, it is difficult for the people facing removal. It’s not a nice process.”
Shuffling numbers on a spreadsheet
While everyone in the sector wants to see the asylum backlog reduced (worth noting there is still a total backlog of 100,000 cases) they want to see it done in a way that protects the asylum seeker.
“What we are seeing now is not a serious approach to reducing the number of people waiting on claims to be heard,” says Sohege. “Instead, it amounts to shuffling numbers on a spreadsheet. Rather than investing hundreds of millions into the asylum systems of countries 4,000 miles away, we need to be investing in our own to ensure that claims are processed not only faster, but with empathy and efficacy.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment, and we’ll update the piece when it arrives.