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UK Prime Minister Faces Criticism Over 'Misleading' Claim of Cleared Asylum Backlog

Marshal Brunt


January 9, 2024


UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has faced strong criticism after announcing on X, formerly Twitter, that his Tory government had cleared the ‘asylum backlog’, according to figures released by the Home Office.


This ‘asylum backlog’ is traditionally described as the number of asylum applications awaiting a resolution by the government. These figures, updated on January 2, 2024, have ignited a debate amongst politicians and the UK public over Sunak’s claim that 112,000 pending cases have been cleared. Of these, 51,469 have been granted asylum and 25,550 cases were refused, the highest figure since 2002. However, the Home Office has released data showing that over 94,000 applications are still awaiting initial decisions, increased from the 900 that led to the claim being labelled ‘misleading’ by Full Fact, a registered fact-checking charity.


This confusion over the claim likely lies in how the backlog is defined. As a result of the Nationality and Borders Act (NABA) that came into force on June 28, 2022, the backlog is divided into ‘legacy’ and ‘flow’ cases, not simply the ‘asylum backlog’. The ‘legacy backlog’ therefore refers to the applications awaiting initial decisions submitted before June 2022, when the asylum laws were changed. Of these, 4,537 'legacy' cases are still waiting for an initial decision, due to further investigations that need to be made, according to the Home Office. Those submitted subsequently have been labelled ‘flow backlog’, standing at 94,000, which, combined, now stands at nearly 99,000.


The PM, who previously pledged to “abolish” the asylum backlog before the end of 2023 by hiring 1,700 additional case workers, appears keen to drive home this success as he drops the biggest indication yet of an election “in the second half of this year” in a Mansfield youth centre last Friday. This comes after the government figures were published by the Home Office indicating that small boat crossings have declined by a third with no new arrivals or detentions in the English Channel between December 17, 2023, and January 2, 2024.


In a conversation with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Home Secretary James Cleverly, formerly Foreign Secretary, echoed the claims of PM Sunak saying the government had “committed to processing all those applications”, while not committing to their completion. Home Secretary Cleverly has countered the criticism by saying “Our commitment was to process them, and we’ve done that”, rather than take them to completion, as is the case with the 4,500 more ‘complex’ cases.


Meanwhile, opposition politicians have sharply scrutinised the ‘manipulation of figures’ by the Home Office. Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper wrote on X that the claims were “just not true”, and commented on the 17,000 “withdrawn” cases, representing the largest amount since 2010, based on analysis by freemovement, a UK-based legal blog.


Withdrawn cases are those that were discontinued without substantive decision-making due to discrepancies, missed questionnaires, missed meetings or other issues. The Shadow Cabinet Minister then went to on question whether the government even knew where the asylum claimants now were.


Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock also commented on the announcement by calling it a “barefaced lie”, pointing to the 4,500 outstanding cases, while also commenting on the confusion over the current location of the withdrawn applicants. The Home Office appeared to justify the PM’s claim by stating that all legacy backlog cases had been “reviewed”.


The announcement appears to signal a wider commitment of the Conservative leader to tie his premiership closer to a hard-line stance on immigration that looks to be a centrepiece of his 2024 electoral campaign. The next expected release of quarterly Home Office Immigration system statistics is scheduled for February 29, 2024.

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