Backlog of old asylum cases nearly cleared but new ones racking up

As the Home Office announced it has delivered on its pledge to abolish its legacy backlog of old asylum cases, data released by the department today shows a new backlog of recent cases is growing.

Back in December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to abolish the legacy backlog of asylum applications. These are asylum applications made before 28 June 2022.

The latest data show these applications have decreased by just over 96,000, from 100,548 in June 2022 to 4,537 in December 2023, a fall of 95%.

However, the flow backlog – applications made since 28 June 2022 – has increased by almost the same amount in that period.

It’s grown from 924 in June 2022 to 94,062 in December 2023. That’s larger than the capacity of Wembley Stadium.

Asylum specialists have accused the government of manipulating the figures in order to meet its pledge.

Home Secretary James Cleverly told Sky News: “Last year we processed 112,000 applications, that includes contemporary applications that have come in the year, but also that legacy backlog that we committed to clear and we have.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The asylum backlog is still nearly 100,000 cases, and we’ve still got thousands of people, record numbers of people in asylum hotels costing the taxpayer around £8m a day. So, the government’s just failing on all counts.”

The overall backlog has decreased by just 2,827 – less than 3% – in the 18 months since the end of June 2022.

Why has the legacy backlog decreased?

These backlogs show the total number of asylum applications still awaiting an “initial decision” at the end of each month.

An “initial decision” includes grants or refusals of asylum, humanitarian protection or leave to remain. The decision may be reconsidered following an appeal, but it is the first and often only decision made by the Home Office on any asylum case.

Since the end of June 2022, 130,800 initial decisions have been made, which is almost four times more than the 33,143 made in the previous 18 months.

While this technically removes asylum seekers from the backlog, it doesn’t always mean that a final decision has been made about each individual’s fate in the UK or otherwise.

Mr Cleverly says one big reason why the Home Office is able to get through cases more quickly is because the number of asylum case-working staff has increased.

There are now 2,405 full-time equivalent staff working on applications, an increase of 1,557 or 183% since June 2022.

As well as the rise in the number of staff, some of the processes appear to be streamlined.

Read more:
No 10 insists legacy asylum claims cleared – despite thousands remaining to be decided
Analysis: Govt’s own statistics make clear Sunak’s legacy asylum backlog claim isn’t true

The number of initial decisions granted used to match closely with the number of “substantive interviews” – a big interview where asylum seekers are asked about reasons for claiming asylum in the UK.

From the start of 2020 to June 2022, there were eight interviews carried out for every 10 decisions. Now there are just five interviews for every 10 decisions, meaning many more decisions are being made without as much scrutiny as before.

Application withdrawals are increasing

Data on initial decisions also includes withdrawn and void applications.

The rise in initial decisions is because both granted and withdrawn applications have increased, while the number of those refused has increased only slightly since 2020 and is significantly down compared to figures from earlier in the 2000s.

In the year to September 2023, 17,316 applications were withdrawn. This is an increase of 306% from 4,260 in the same period in 2022.

Refugee and asylum specialist Louise Calvey told Sky News: “What we’re seeing here is the government really manipulating these figures in order to have headlines that it’s met a pledge.

“What it’s not doing is delivering real change to our asylum system and asylum processing.

“Actually, the way that it’s approached this backlog is going to make the problem so much worse moving forward, because now those people, those 17,000 people who have had their claim withdrawn, are going to have to find a solicitor, have to put an appeal in, or further representation or different form of legal challenge.”

Mr Cleverly told Sky News why he thought people were dropping out of the asylum system. He said: “People think they’re going to be unsuccessful.

“Sometimes they slip out of the system, sometimes they return home, sometimes they slip into illicit working, which is one of the reasons why we’ve increased the number of raids on illegal employment.”

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.


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