Rishi Sunak engulfed by row over ‘false’ asylum statistics as 100,000 migrants still stuck in backlog

Rishi Sunak engulfed by row over ‘false’ asylum statistics as 100,000 migrants still stuck in backlog

Rishi Sunak has been accused of trying to “cook the books” and a “barefaced lie” after he claimed to have cleared the asylum backlog despite figures showing nearly 100,000 migrants still waiting for a decision.

The home secretary James Cleverly also appeared to compound the prime minister’s woes on a difficult first day back after the new year break, saying it was “impossible” to forecast how long it would take to deal with outstanding cases.

The government said it had met Mr Sunak’s pledge to clear all so-called legacy asylum claims – counted as those submitted before June 2022. But official statistics confirmed that 4,500 of those cases are ongoing.

Mr Sunak also came under fire for suggesting the government had cleared the entire backlog as figures showed 98,599 asylum claims still languishing in the system.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock accused the PM of promoting a “barefaced lie” that was “an insult to the public’s intelligence”.

Politicians and charities also criticised ministers for removing, or “withdrawing”, some 17,000 asylum claims, with the Refugee Council saying the Home Office had “lost track” of the failed asylum seekers.

It came as:

The new figures, released on Tuesday, show the government made 35,000 “non-substantive” decisions in 2023 – up from 13,093 in 2022 – which includes applications that are withdrawn, void or paused and therefore removed from the official backlog.

Applications can be withdrawn for reasons such as failing to attend interviews or appointments, and not filling in new “fast-track” questionnaires. This can happen without the asylum seeker’s consent – even if it has been unable to contact them and does not know where they are.

Rishi Sunak was accused of ‘lying’ about asylum figures (PA)
Rishi Sunak was accused of ‘lying’ about asylum figures (PA)

The shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper hit out at the Home Office for having “no idea where those people are”.

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said the Home Office had “lost track of too many people who have been removed from the asylum process ... at risk of sleeping rough during the winter months.”

And MP Scott Benton, who had the Tory whip removed over a lobbying scandal, wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “Having a de facto amnesty where you simply approve the majority of applications as ‘genuine’, and 17,000 people running off never to be seen again, does not count as reducing the asylum backlog.”

Mr Sunak made his pledge to clear around 92,000 asylum claims by the end of last year as part of a plan to get a grip on the migrant crisis. Decisions have been made in 86,800 cases, with reviews ongoing in the remaining 4,500.

Mr Sunak later tweeted: “I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Within hours No 10 was forced to deny it had been “wrong” of the prime minister to claim the backlog had been cleared.

But the claim was denounced as “false” by opposition parties, campaign groups and even Fraser Nelson, the editor of Tory bible The Spectator magazine, who likened the tweet to that of a “snake oil salesman” and urged the PM’s social media team to take the row “as a lesson learned”.

X also weighed in on the debate – with an “added context” note put onto Mr Sunak’s tweet about the “cleared backlog”, which said: “The backlog has not been cleared”.

Mr Cleverly defended the remaining cases, saying they were complex and that it was fair to count them as cleared because they are being looked at. But he added that it was “impossible” to say how long they would take to process.

But Mr Cleverly and the government were criticised over claims they had massaged the figures.

As the row deepened, charities accused the government of operating a “smoke and mirrors policy” of withdrawing claims to artificially shrink the backlog. Home Office officials have previously admitted that they don’t know the whereabouts of these asylum seekers.

CEO of Care4Calais, Steve Smith, said the government was attempting to “cook the books”. He said: “They decided to create a so-called ‘legacy backlog’ to set a political target and it has not been met.

“With no plan for onward accommodation for ‘new refugees’, and with many people’s asylum claims erroneously withdrawn due to government errors, our volunteers are dealing daily with asylum seekers left on the UK’s streets.”

James Cleverly told media that it was ‘impossible’ to know when the backlog of legacy asylum claims would be cleared (PA)
James Cleverly told media that it was ‘impossible’ to know when the backlog of legacy asylum claims would be cleared (PA)

Campaign group Migrant Voice criticised the government’s “smoke and mirrors” policy of withdrawing claims.

Jon Featonby, of the Refugee Council, said that of the 98,000 cases still waiting on a decision, 33,085 had been made after the passing of the Illegal Migration Act, leaving them potentially at risk of being sent to Rwanda.

“But there’s no way anywhere near that number of people would be sent. So the vast majority would just end up in permanent limbo,” he added.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “Once again, the Conservative government are celebrating something that frankly is no achievement. All Rishi Sunak has managed here is to process asylum claims that should have been sorted years ago. The reality is that 99,000 people are in the asylum backlog – stuck in limbo and stuck in a system that just is not working.”

New data shows that the government have also processed around 25,300 newer asylum claims, in addition to the legacy cases, taking the total number of decisions made in the past year to over 112,000, the highest figure in two decades. Of these, 67 per cent were granted asylum.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper said Mr Sunak’s claims about clearing the backlog were ‘not true’ (PA)
Labour’s Yvette Cooper said Mr Sunak’s claims about clearing the backlog were ‘not true’ (PA)

The data also showed that the legacy backlog was drastically cut in the last few months of last year. There were 33,253 decisions left to make in October, but this fell to 4,537 by 28 December.

The total asylum backlog now stands at 98,599. This is a decrease on record high levels in early 2023 when the backlog stood at nearly 140,000, but it is still historically high. In March 2020, the backlog stood at 40,000 and in 2013, the backlog was down to 9,500.

The Home Office also revealed that 348 hotels were still being used to house asylum seekers in December, a slight decrease from 398 in October.