The government is claiming victory in clearing the backlog of asylum claims – but that has been described as “misleading” as thousands are still waiting for a final decision.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged in December 2022 that he would “abolish” the legacy backlog of asylum claims made before 28 June of that year, with the Home Office being given the target of the end of 2023.
On Monday, the department said the pledge had been “delivered”, having processed more than 112,000 asylum claims overall in 2023.
There were more than 92,000 asylum claims made before 28 June 2022 requiring a decision, but Labour has said the government’s claim that all of those cases have been cleared is “false”.
The Home Office said on Monday that all cases in the legacy backlog have been reviewed, but added that “4,500 complex cases have been highlighted that require additional checks or investigation for a final decision to be made”.
Such cases typically involve “asylum seekers presenting as children – where age verification is taking place; those with serious medical issues; or those with suspected past convictions, where checks may reveal criminality that would bar asylum”, the department added.
It is understood that the Home Office has processed about 25,200 newer asylum claims, on top of the 86,800 decisions in legacy cases, which means the provisional number of total decisions made overall in the year reaches 112,000.
As many decisions as possible were made in the legacy backlog, according to officials, and the outstanding cases are due to a refusal to compromise security.
They pointed to efforts to clear some of the newer cases as evidence of the department’s commitment to tackling the overall backlog.
The prime minister said in a statement that the department’s efforts are “saving the taxpayer millions of pounds in expensive hotel costs, reducing strain on public services and ensuring the most vulnerable receive the right support”.
However, the CEO of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said it is “misleading for the government to claim that the legacy backlog has been cleared as there are thousands still waiting for a decision”.
“After mismanaging the asylum system for so many years the government was right to clear the backlog but was wrong to do it in a way that has failed to see the face behind the case and instead has treated people simply as statistics rather than with the care and compassion they deserve,” he added.
Labour’s shadow immigration minister also accused the government of making “false” claims about clearing the asylum backlog.
Stephen Kinnock said: “The asylum backlog has rocketed to 165,000 under the Tories – eight times higher than when Labour left office – and no slicing or renaming the figures can disguise that fact.
“Meanwhile Rishi Sunak’s promise made a year ago to end asylum hotel use has been disastrously broken – with a 20% increase to 56,000, costing the British taxpayer more than £2bn a year.
“This is yet more evidence of an asylum system broken by the Conservatives.”
The government’s announcement comes after months of fears that the prime minister’s target would not be achieved.
In February last year, the Home Office said thousands of asylum seekers would be sent questionnaires which could be used to speed up a decision on their claims, and about 12,000 people from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Libya and Yemen, who had applied for asylum in the UK and were waiting for a decision, were understood to be eligible under the policy.
In June, the National Audit Office (NAO) said efforts to clear the backlog needed to significantly increase to clear the backlog and questioned whether the plans were sustainable.
The spending watchdog also estimated £3.6bn was spent on asylum support in 2022-23, which amounted to almost double the previous year.
The Home Office said more caseworkers had been tasked with processing applications, which was “tripling productivity to ensure more illegal migrants are returned to their country of origin, quicker”.
But the department’s top civil servant, Sir Matthew Rycroft, revealed in a letter to MPs that just 1,182 migrants who had crossed the Channel had been returned to their home country since 2020, out of a total of more than 111,800 who arrived in that time period.
The majority of those returned were from Albania, with whom the UK has a returns agreement.
In an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee in December, the prime minister was unable to say when the remaining overall backlog of asylum claims would be cleared, which continued to rise and stood at 91,076 as of the end of November, not including legacy cases.