Is Rishi Sunak meeting his asylum pledge?

Migrants stand in line as they wait for the bus to be taken for processing, in Dungeness, on the southeast coast of England.

By Lucy Gilder and Anthony Reuben

BBC Verify

The government is set to grant record numbers of people asylum this year as it tries to meet one of Rishi Sunak’s key pledges on illegal immigration.

On 13 December 2022, Mr Sunak said he wanted to “abolish” the legacy backlog of claims by the end of 2023. The government said this referred to claims made before 28 June 2022 that had yet to receive a decision.

If that is to happen it is going to be a very busy December for Home Office officials.

They have been making progress but questions are being raised about how the backlog is coming down, namely the number of people being granted asylum and the large number of cases being withdrawn by the government.

What has happened to the asylum backlog?

When Mr Sunak made his pledge, there were about 91,000 older claims waiting to be processed.

The latest available figures show a fall of about 80%, to just over 18,000 at the end of November 2023.

Dealing with those remaining cases before the end of the year is a big ask, especially as staff are likely to be taking time off towards the end of December.

In November, just under 15,000 people were removed from the backlog – a record by some distance.

Government insiders have told BBC News more than 4,000 cases were being dealt with each week before Robert Jenrick resigned as immigration minister.

But a Home Office official told iNews many of the remaining cases were complicated and some within the department were worried the target would be missed.

There are certainly more people doing the work – the number of asylum caseworker staff has nearly doubled since December 2022.

Unions representing them told BBC News they had been working a lot of overtime and weekends and agency staff had been taken on.

Migration minister Tom Pursglove told the Home Affairs Select Committee on 13 December: “I am confident that all claims that can be decided will be decided within the timeframe.”

The committee chair noted that he was “using very careful language”.

While the legacy backlog has decreased, the overall number of people awaiting asylum decisions – including applications made before and after June 2022 – is still high.

More than 109,000 applicants – not including dependants – are awaiting a decision on an asylum application.

Are more people being granted asylum?

In the first nine months of 2023, 33,239 people were granted asylum. That is only about 200 short of the record for a full year, which was 2002.

That is partly because people on the legacy backlog from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen have been asked to fill out a questionnaire instead of having face-to-face interviews.

The Home Office said that 95% of applicants from those countries are usually granted asylum anyway.

The ISU, a union representing people working on borders and asylum, told BBC News that its members were under pressure and that it was easier to grant asylum than to refuse it.

“There is a great deal of pressure to meet deadlines and that pressure leads to problems with decision-making,” said Lucy Moreton from the ISU.

Are more cases being withdrawn?

Another way the legacy backlog is decreasing is through the number of claims being withdrawn.

When an asylum claim is withdrawn it means it will no longer be considered by the Home Office.

The proportion of claims being withdrawn this year has been high – 27% for 2023 so far, which is higher than the proportion for any year since comparable records began in 2002. The proportion of claims rejected was the lowest in the same period at 18%.

Withdrawals include “explicit withdrawals”, where an asylum seeker chooses to withdraw their claim, and “implicit withdrawals”, where the Home Office chooses to withdraw the claim.

In August 2023, the Home Office added new criteria under which an asylum claim can be implicitly withdrawn:

  • failure to attend any reporting events unless the applicant demonstrates this was due to circumstances beyond their control
  • failure to maintain contact with the Home Office or provide up-to-date contact details

Some lawyers have questioned this.

“It is no coincidence that the criteria under which claims were considered ‘withdrawn’ was broadened within months of the prime minister promising to clear the backlog,” said Shoaib Khan, a human rights barrister.

“The Home Office is clearly scheduling large numbers of asylum interviews and requiring people to regularly report to the Home Office, all in the hope that people will miss some appointment, giving the Home Office a chance to mark the claim as withdrawn and therefore cleared from the backlog.”

The Home Office denied this. Its spokesperson said: “Each claim is carefully considered on a case-by-case-basis and to suggest otherwise is categorically wrong.”


Rishi Sunak announced a five point plan to tackle illegal migration in December 2022

The issue of implicit claim withdrawals was raised on 29 November at the Home Affairs Select Committee by Conservative MP Tim Loughton who asked about 17,316 people who had their claims withdrawn between September 2022 and September 2023.

However, when BBC Verify accessed Home Office data it was unable to arrive at the figure quoted to the committee.

The Home Office later told us that “due to a technical error” a large number of withdrawals had been mis-labelled as withdrawn by applicants, when they were actually withdrawn by the government.

It also said the error “had no impact on the processing of cases and the figures will be rectified in future publications”.

BBC Verify understands that the statistics watchdog plans to write to the Home Office about the error.

At the meeting of MPs, Simon Ridley, the second most senior Home Office official, said the high number of withdrawals may be because the legacy claims had been made a long time ago.

“In dealing with a lot of older cases there have been some people who will have absconded before we get to this point.”

Asked where the 17,316 people were, Mr Ridley replied: “I don’t think we know where all those people are.”

In a letter sent to the committee on 12 December, the Home Office said that 54% of the 17,316 withdrawn claims had been made by Albanians “who have tended to be less compliant with our systems”.

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