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Rishi Sunak set to launch crackdown on asylum seeker backlog with 20-day questionnaire

Rishi Sunak is poised to launch a major crackdown on the asylum seeker backlog in the coming days by invalidating applications if they fail to return a new questionnaire within 20 working days, Sky News can reveal.

A leaked Home Office letter shows that asylum seekers, who often speak little or no English and have limited access to help, must fill the 32-page form under the policy - which could be announced as soon as tomorrow.

"A failure to return the questionnaire without reasonable explanation may result in an individual's asylum claim being withdrawn in line with the published policy on withdrawing asylum claims," says the leaked letter, expected to be released tomorrow.

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This comes as the number of outstanding claims for asylum is expected to pass 150,000 for the first time in more than 20 years because of the surge in migrants crossing the Channel in small boats.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared the issue one of his top priorities, and next month, MPs are waiting for him to publish laws to bar anyone entering the UK illegally from claiming asylum in Britain.

The announcement comes on the eve of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer seeking to grab the limelight by setting out his five-point plan for the future.

'Streamline'

The questionnaires will initially be sent to older asylum claims from the nations of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen - countries where 90% or more of claims are granted.

This will go to 12,000 claimants who applied pre-June 2022.

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The Home Office's director of asylum, protection and enforcement writes in a letter that this would "streamline" the asylum process for "claimants who are confirmed nationals of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen".

However, the letter warns: "Should claimants approach [organisations that help asylum seekers] for assistance, we would be very grateful if you can continue the work you do with asylum seekers in the UK by supporting them with this questionnaire.

"Twenty working days will be provided for claimants to return this questionnaire.

"A reminder will be sent thereafter should the questionnaire not be returned. Extensions can be requested where required.

"A failure to return the questionnaire without reasonable explanation may result in an individual's asylum claim being withdrawn in line with the published policy on withdrawing asylum claim."

This has prompted fears that some asylum applications, including those from Afghanistan, will speak very little English and find it hard to get legal aid - and might not even get the letter if they have moved around the country a lot.

The Home Office says there are no further plans to roll this out to other groups.

In the letter, it adds: "Whilst we will begin to dispatch the asylum claim questionnaire to nationals of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen, we may extend the use of the questionnaire as a means to gather additional information from other claimants awaiting an asylum decision in due course.

"We will provide further details on this in due course."

Responding to the Sky News leak, Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: "Moves to reduce the backlog are welcome but the answer is not yet more bureaucratic hurdles and threats of applications being withdrawn.

"Quickly granting refugee status to people from countries with high grant rates should be a welcome first step but the process must be well thought-out.

"After living in worry and uncertainty for months and even years without hearing anything about their claims, it cannot then be fair or reasonable to expect people to complete a lengthy form only in English in a matter of weeks especially for those who don't have access to legal advice and don't speak English."