‘The waiting is terrible, I wake up screaming’: thousands living in limbo amid UK asylum backlog

<span>The Bibby Stockholm barge to accommodate asylum seekers being manoeuvred into the dock at Portland, Dorset, last July.</span><span>Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA</span>
The Bibby Stockholm barge to accommodate asylum seekers being manoeuvred into the dock at Portland, Dorset, last July.Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

When Saba* converted to Christianity, she knew she could no longer stay in Iran. As a disabled woman and a victim of religious persecution, to remain would “mean being killed”, she told the Observer, her voice cracking with emotion. She fled in secret, claiming asylum in the UK in autumn 2022. “I was scared,” she said. “I only wanted to arrive in a safe place.”

Since then, Saba has been waiting for her asylum application to be processed. “The waiting is terrible. I have nightmares that I am being killed, I wake up screaming. I am visually impaired and have kidney disease. The stress affects my health – my hands and feet shake and go numb.”

Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, started 2024 by announcing that 92,000 “legacy backlog” asylum claims – those made before 28 June 2022 – have been cleared. He has since been accused of misleading the public by the UK Statistics Authority. More than 4,500 “complex” cases, which include people with severe medical conditions, are still waiting for an asylum decision – as are thousands more people such as Saba.

“The definition of a complex case is not clear,” said the head of clinical services for the London branch of Freedom from Torture, who did not wish her full name to be used. “I have reviewed London asylum cases which are still part of the legacy backlog, and they don’t appear to fall under the category of complexity referred to by the government.”

The criticism of Sunak comes as no surprise to Saba. “If you have cleared the backlog, why am I still waiting for your response? I feel the UK government has forgotten me,” she said.

“The asylum backlog is far from cleared,” said Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, policy and public affairs manager at migrant rights charity Praxis. “More than 100,000 people are still waiting for a decision on their application for asylum. Almost 5,000 of these have been waiting at least 18 months, and many even longer.”

They include Ahmed*, who was ­tortured in Syria and fled with his family in fear of his life to Lebanon before claiming asylum in the UK. He has been waiting since summer 2022 for a second interview with the Home Office to decide his claim.

Ahmed is separated from his wife and baby son, who has a serious ­medical condition. He struggles with mental and physical health complications, including those caused by ­torture, that have been worsened by his long wait. “I hope the Home Office will consider my case as soon as possible,” he said. “My son is sick. He needs my help, I am his father. But we are stuck.”

Usman Aslam is a senior associate at Mukhtar & Co legal firm, representing asylum seekers such as Ahmed. He describes the impacts of the delays as “enormous”, and says asylum seekers are treated “like cattle”.

“The immigration rules require decisions to be taken on outstanding asylum claims ‘as soon as possible, without prejudice to an adequate and complete examination’,” Aslam said. “In the case of a Syrian national, who has provided identification documents, there is arguably no further examination required, especially if the asylum seeker has been granted entry clearance on a visa route, so their identity has been accepted. The Home Office policy on Syria is to grant claims.”

Ahmed was given refugee status five days after sharing his story with the Observer, and 18 months after first claiming asylum.

Freedom from Torture has supported people waiting for years to have their asylum cases processed, many of whom are survivors of torture. “Research shows it is really important for a patient to feel safe before they can move on to addressing trauma,” said the clinical services head. “But for people waiting for asylum decisions, that sense of safety is not being met.” They do not feel safe, in part because they are afraid of being removed to their country of origin. This has an impact on their recovery.”

Rose*, who is being supported by Praxis, first claimed asylum in 2019 and is waiting to hear a decision on her appeal. “When I came to the UK, I was a happy person because I thought I had found a place where I could be free,” she said. “I felt like a bird that had been released from a net.

“I realise I am actually trapped,” she continued, speaking through tears. “I don’t feel free within myself. I don’t know if I am moving forward. I don’t know how long the Home Office will keep me waiting.”

Kemmis said: “For asylum seekers who have not been given status, they don’t have a sense of belonging. However hard they try to engage with treatment and recovery, it is really challenging when they are in limbo. And it’s not in our control, it’s not in their control, it’s in the Home Office’s control.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Some asylum cases are more complex than others. Where further investigation is needed, it is absolutely right we take those steps.” They added: “The welfare of asylum seekers is taken extremely seriously.”

* Names have been changed to protect identities