New statistics call into question Sunak’s claim of clearing asylum backlog

<span>Rishi Sunak’s claims to have cleared the asylum backlog have been called into question.</span><span>Photograph: Toby Melville/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Rishi Sunak’s claims to have cleared the asylum backlog have been called into question.Photograph: Toby Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak’s claims to have cleared the asylum backlog by the end of 2023 have been called into question, as data shows appeals against Home Office refusals of asylum claims have increased by more than 300% in the first three months of this year.

In the latest quarterly statistics for tribunals for the period January to March, published by the Ministry of Justice, the number of asylum and protection appeals lodged was 10,000 – an increase of 330%.

If a backlog has been cleared, asylum claims should not still be in the system. But thousands of the cases refused in the backlog clearing exercise have now surfaced in the appeals process, at what is known as the first-tier tribunal immigration and asylum chamber (FTTIAC).

Resources at the tribunal are already stretched and these cases, which the government said had been cleared, will now create extra work. When the Ministry of Justice published the latest figures, government officials made it clear that the 330% increase in asylum appeals was due to moves to clear the backlog.

“The increase in appeals to the FTTIAC follows the Home Office’s work to tackle the backlog of legacy asylum claims,” states an explanation of the increase.

Lawyers have raised concerns that in the government’s haste to meet the prime minister’s target to clear the asylum backlog, pledged in December 2022, not all of the decisions made were correct, leaving many cases unresolved and pushed to a different part of the immigration system.

Related: Rishi Sunak tells MPs he will clear asylum backlog by end of 2023

Although the prime minister pledged to clear the backlog, the target was only to clear one part of it – known as the legacy backlog of asylum claims made before 28 June 2022. The government has admitted that although 112,000 claims were processed in 2023, 4,500 complex cases were still being dealt with so had not been cleared. There was also a quadrupling in cases withdrawn, the majority – 79% – withdrawn by the Home Office. This is four times the number withdrawn in 2022. And while a record 62,336 people were granted protection in the backlog clearing exercise, nearly 31,000 were refused protection, a fivefold increase on the previous year’s figure.

Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock called Sunak’s claims to have cleared the backlog “false”.

As of March, 86,500 asylum seekers were still awaiting an initial decision on their claims and more asylum claims will have been made since then, so the backlog continues.

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Sonia Lenegan, the editor of the immigration blog Free Movement, said the new figures “should not surprise anyone”.

“A lot of the asylum seekers lodging appeals will not have a lawyer to represent them due to appeal work being so unprofitable under legal aid rates. How will the tribunal communicate with people who do not speak English and will not be able to commission the kind of expert reports lawyers can obtain?

“These people are going to be stuck here without the ability to obtain refugee status. The tribunal is already very stretched. This is just creating more work for everyone.”

Jamie Bell, a lawyer at Duncan Lewis Solicitors who deals with asylum appeals, said the asylum system was being “sabotaged” and that the sharp increase in cases would create enormous difficulties for the tribunal.

“I don’t see how the tribunal will be able to function with a sharp increase in cases and where there is a lack of specialist lawyers to help them through it,” he said. “It could take a number of years for these cases to be processed. Asylum seekers will be stuck in a horrible logjam. This problem is going to need drastic action by any incoming government.”

When Sunak pledged to clear the asylum backlog he also said he would end hotel use and tackle the small boats issue by establishing a specialist command team. Neither objective has so far been achieved. Approximately 300 hotels accommodating tens of thousands of people are still in use and small boat arrivals continue at unprecedented levels so far this year. On 18 June, 882 people arrived in 15 boats, a record number so far this year.

Conservative central office has been approached for comment.