UK asylum backlog hits new record of 160,000

The UK’s asylum backlog has topped 160,000 for the first time since current records began as Albanians became the most common nationality to make claims last year.

A total of 160,919 asylum seekers were waiting for an initial decision on their claim at the end of December.

This was up 60% from 100,564 for the same period in 2021 and the highest figure since current records began in 2010, Home Office figures published on Thursday show.

The number of people waiting more than six months for an initial decision was 109,641 at the end of 2022, up 77% year-on-year from 61,864.

There were 14,223 applications by Albanian nationals in 2022 and 9,573 of these came from people who arrived in the UK after crossing the Channel.

The majority of applicants from the Balkan state (83% or 11,832) were men.

Some 90% of people arriving in the UK in 2022 after crossing the Channel claimed asylum or were recorded as a dependant on an asylum application.

The figures come after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to reduce the asylum backlog by the end of 2023 as he vowed to “stop the boats” crossing the Channel.

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The Home Office has about 10 months to clear 92,601 initial asylum claims in the system at the end of June 2022.

As part of efforts to speed up the process and cut the soaring backlog, thousands of asylum seekers will now be sent 10-page questionnaires to fill out instead of facing an interview, amid warnings from officials their claim could be “withdrawn” if they do not reply with the required information.

The Home Office said the rising backlog was “due to more cases entering the asylum system than receiving initial decisions”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed the asylum system has been “broken by this Government”, while Marley Morris from the Institute for Public Policy Research said the latest backlog figures paint a “dire picture of the inadequacies in our asylum system”.

The Refugee Council branded the latest figures “alarming” and said people fleeing persecution are being left “in limbo” awaiting a decision.

Asylum applications in the UK
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The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford described the scale of the challenge as a “major headache” for the Government.

Senior researcher Dr Peter Walsh said other countries have “routinely received similar or higher numbers of claims” but processing the applications has been “particularly slow in the UK”.

While there was no “single” explanation, factors included “low morale and high turnover” among Home Office case workers, the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and additional measures introduced by the Government, he added.

Data obtained by the Observatory under freedom of information laws suggest the average waiting time by 2021 was more than 20 months.

The Home Office figures show there were 18,699 initial decisions made on asylum applications last year, up 29% from 14,532 in 2021 but 10% below the 20,766 in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

People detected crossing the English Channel in small boats
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More than three-quarters (76%) of initial decisions in 2022 were grants of refugee status, humanitarian protection or alternative forms of leave, which the Home Office described as a “substantially higher grant rate” than in years before the pandemic.

The grant rate last year was the highest since 1990, when it was 82% – although the volume of applications was much lower at that time, with 4,025 initial decisions made compared with 18,699 in 2022.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Our priority is to stop the boats and ensure that people who come here illegally are detained and swiftly removed.

“We are working to speed up asylum processing so that people do not wait months or years in the backlog, at vast expense to the taxpayer, and to remove everyone who doesn’t have a legitimate reason to be here.

“To ensure our processes remain robust and all claims are properly considered, we have recruited hundreds of caseworkers to crack through cases.

“As part of these efforts to speed up the asylum process for high-grant nationalities, 12,000 asylum seekers who have made legacy asylum claims will be asked to provide details in a new Home Office questionnaire to help determine their case. If they do not reply, their asylum claim could be withdrawn.”