British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday declared he had met his target to clear the country’s “legacy” asylum backlog by the end of 2023 and also bucked the trend across Europe by cutting down arrivals of illegal migrants via small boats by 36 per cent.
The UK Home Office said that 112,000 asylum cases were processed in the past year, which exceeded Sunak’s initial target of 92,000 applications pending at the end of 2022. It claimed that fundamental changes to the decision-making process and boosting efficiency resulted in the highest annual number of “substantive” asylum decisions in a year since 2002.
“I am determined to end the burden of illegal migration on the British people. That is why we have taken action to stop the boats, return hotels to their local communities, and deter those wanting to come here illegally from doing so,” said Sunak in a statement to mark the start of 2024, a general election year for the UK.
“By clearing the legacy asylum backlog, deciding more than 112,000 cases, we are saving the taxpayer millions of pounds in expensive hotel costs, reducing strain on public services and ensuring the most vulnerable receive the right support. But we cannot be complacent, which is why I am focused on delivering on my commitment to stop the boats and get flights off the ground to Rwanda” he said.
The Rwanda plan involves asylum seekers being flown out to the east African country while their applications are processed, with the controversial measure to go through its parliamentary process in the coming weeks.
“While illegal entries across Europe are going up, the number of people coming into the UK illegally is going down. This is a significant achievement, but the job is far from over,” said UK Home Secretary James Cleverly.
“I will continue to do everything possible to stop the boats. No people smuggler will be safe, we will work with law enforcement partners and Governments across the world who want to tackle this threat and ensure that British taxpayer money is not wasted on people trying to abuse our generosity,” he said.
The UK government claims it stepped up processing, deploying an additional 1,200 caseworkers, meeting the target to double the number of asylum caseworkers and tripling productivity to ensure more illegal migrants are returned to their country of origin, quicker.
All cases in the so-called “legacy backlog” have now reportedly been reviewed, with 86,800 decisions made. In one four-week period from November 20 to December 17, 2023, there were 20,481 initial asylum decisions made, this is more than the number of asylum decisions made in the entirety of 2021.
However, the Opposition Labour Party hit back at these claims to accuse the government of “misleading” the public.
“The asylum backlog has rocketed to 165,000 under the Tories – eight times higher than when Labour left office – and no slicing or renaming the figures can disguise that fact,” said Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock.
However, the Home Office insisted all cases have been reviewed and 112,000 decisions made overall, with 4,500 “complex cases” highlighted that require additional checks or investigation for a final decision to be made.
The Home Office said: “These hard cases typically relate to asylum seekers presenting as children – where age verification is taking place; those with serious medical issues; or those with suspected past convictions, where checks may reveal criminality that would bar asylum.
“The robust action taken by the government to disrupt and deter small boat gangs and people smugglers has seen the UK defy trends across Europe, and large parts of the world, by having fewer small boat arrivals than the previous year, while sea crossings to Europe are up 80 per cent. As well as individuals arriving by small boats dropping by 36 per cent, there has also been a 46 per cent decrease in the number of vessels, crossing the [English] Channel, demonstrating the success of operations to disrupt the supply of boats and engines.”
Sunak sees curbing soaring migration figures, both legal and illegal, an important target for the government as he prepares for a general election this year. The Home Office has claimed many successes in this area in 2023, including returning more than 24,000 people who had no right to be in the UK, 5,576 arrests over illegal working, overstaying, facilitating illegal entry and entering illegally, 68 per cent increase in illegal working clampdowns and 246 arrests of people smugglers.