Asylum backlog at over 120,000 despite record number of refugees granted protection

Small boat arrivals down year-on-year fuelled by huge drop in Albanians attempting Channel crossing

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 29 February 2024 16:14 GMT
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More than 120,000 people were still waiting on a decision on their asylum claim at the end of December last year, despite a record number of refugees being granted protection in 2023, government figures show.

Some 3,902 asylum applications were stuck in the so-called “legacy” backlog, for claims made before July 2022. Rishi Sunak and James Cleverly claimed to have cleared the legacy backlog in January this year, but were accused of propagating a “barefaced lie” by Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock.

The overall asylum backlog of 128,786 people was down 20 per cent from 160,919 in 2022. The Home Office have been working to bring down the number of asylum claims, resulting in a record number of decisions to grant asylum being made in 2023.

Some 62,336 people were granted refugee status or other protection following an asylum claim last year - the highest number since records began in 1984.

Despite a significant number of asylum grants, the overall number of claims dropped by 17 per cent last year compared to 2022.

There was a large increase in the number of asylum claims that were withdrawn in 2023, with 25,583 withdrawn last year compared to 5,944 in 2022.

Small boat arrivals were also down 36 per cent compared to 2022 (Getty)

Politicians have raised concerns that applications can be withdrawn by the Home Office without the asylum seeker’s consent. Civil servants have previously admitted to MPs that they don’t know where thousands of these asylum seekers are, once their claims are taken out of the system.

Small boat arrivals were also down 36 per cent compared to 2022. This was driven by the number of Albanian nationals coming on small boats decreasing significantly, with 924 in 2023 compared to 12,658 in 2022.

The UK made a deal with Albania in December 2022, creating a new system to handle Albanian asylum cases and with the aim to cut the number of people making the journey to the UK.

Bad weather in the later part of the year also hampered Channel crossings, the Home Office admitted.

Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, slammed the government for figures showing that almost 46,000 people are still stuck in asylum hotels.

“The Tories’ failure to clear the backlog and return small boats arrivals has blown a £4bn hole in the Home Office budget, paid at taxpayers’ expense. Meanwhile, work visas are soaring due to their failure to train people here in the UK,” she said.

Figures released by the Home Office on Thursday also showed that there had been a rise in people coming to the UK on work visas. The number of work visas granted in 2023 was almost two and a half times higher than pre-pandemic levels.

This was mainly driven by a huge surge in grants of skilled health and social care visas, which had almost doubled year-on-year to 146,477. Out of this some 89,236 care worker visas had been granted last year.

Dr Ben Brindle, research at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said that the social care visa route was “attractive to many overseas workers”. He added: “It offers a more accessible route to living in the UK than other sectors, where it can be harder to find jobs that qualify for visas”.

Dr Peter William Walsh, at the Observatory, added: “Most of the decline in small boat arrival results from the sharp fall in Albanian arrivals. This makes it rather uncertain whether the decline will continue, since the factors that reduced Albanian citizens’ arrivals may not deter people from other countries to the same degree. For example, the top nationality crossing the channel in 2023 was Afghans, most of whom qualify for refugee status.”

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “Despite the work to reduce the backlog, there are still over 128,000 men, women and children stuck in limbo waiting for a decision.”

He added that the government’s Illegal Migration Act and Rwanda plan were putting tens of thousands of asylum seekers into a new permanent backlog, where their cases have been paused.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are making progress to stop the boats and last year the UK bucked the trend by reducing illegal migration and made significant steps in tackling abuse of our asylum system.

“Channel crossings were down by more than a third, we cleared the legacy asylum backlog, enforced returns were up by 66 per cent and we returned 50 hotels back to their communities.

“We will pass our Rwanda Bill so that those who enter the UK illegally can be quickly removed to a safe third country. Only by removing the prospect that illegal migrants can settle in the UK can we control our borders and save lives at sea.”

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