The home secretary is right to expedite asylum decision making – but wrong to impose arbitrary deadlines and threaten to withdraw asylum seekers’ claims
Leaked documents show the Home Office is planning to use a written questionnaire, to be completed in English, to speed up asylum decision making in around 12,000 less complex cases. This is one way to help meet the prime minister’s pledge to clear the backlog (as it stood at the enactment of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, of 92,601 cases) by the end of 2023. But a short deadline and threats to withdraw claims will either be ineffective or counter-productive.
There is no doubt clearing the backlog is important
The asylum backlog stood at 166,261 at the end of 2022, a four-fold increase over five years, while two thirds of applicants have been waiting for a decision for more than six months. This is a result of many complex factors (covered in our asylum backlog explainer) but the human cost is undeniable. 25 House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (HASC), Channel crossings, migration and asylum, First Report of Session 2022–23 (HC 505), 2022 26 BBC News, ‘Knowsley: Three arrested after protest at Merseyside asylum seeker hotel’, 11 February 2023 There is also a cost to the public finances. In December the prime minister stated that the government was paying £5.5m a day to accommodate asylum seekers in hotels. 27 House of Commons, Hansard, ‘Illegal Immigration’, 13 December 2022, col. 886
Expediting more predictable cases is sensible – widening eligibility may help further
To meet the target, the Home Office is triaging cases and simplifying decision making where the outcome is likely to be known. This is sensible. It makes sense to shorten and speed up the process for applicants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen – to whom the new 11-page questionnaire will be sent – as over 95% of this group have their cases approved and together they make up almost a fifth (18%) of the backlog.
But only expediting these top five most-granted applicants may prove too cautious. To meet the target the Home Office may well need to widen the eligibility. Other applicant cohorts – from Iran and Sudan, for example – still have acceptance rates above 80% and make up a further 15% of the backlog.
The Home Office is also hiring more frontline decision makers. There are now around 1,200 caseworkers, with a target of reaching 2,500 by August. 28 House of Commons, ‘Asylum: Children, Question for Home Office’, UIN 113424, answered 11 January 2023 This helps, but the number of decision makers is not all that matters. With new caseworkers taking 12–18 months to become fully proficient in making complex cases 29 Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), An inspection of asylum casework (August 2020 – May 2021), The Stationery Office, November 2021 tasking newly joined staff with processing these comparatively straightforward questionnaires could be sensible.
The department should also explore other ways to improve efficiency, such as strengthening supervision of new recruits and using promotion – with the prospect of higher pay and responsibility for more complex cases – to encourage staff retention. And there are other ways the Home Office can triage cases and speed up decision making. The UN Refugee Agency has recommended investing in the registration and screening of asylum seekers and providing focused interview guidance for different categories of claims, for instance. 30 UNHCR, Guide to Asylum Reform in the United Kingdom, 23 February 2021
But arbitrary deadlines and threats will create more problems
The Home Office has said it plans to give asylum seekers 20 working days to submit the questionnaire – or face the prospect of having their claim withdrawn. This is a hollow threat. It knows it will be unable to deport many of the claimants from these five, high-risk countries.
It could also be counterproductive. Treating claims as “implicitly withdrawn” when applicants fail to complete questionnaires is not a new tactic. 31 Home Office, Withdrawing asylum claims: Asylum policy instruction, Version 6.0, 7 May 2020 The government says doing so helps them to focus efforts on those who are “serious”. But plenty of “serious” asylum seekers will find it difficult to translate the questionnaire, receive adequate legal advice (which is in short supply) and complete the form within the deadline. 32 Syal R, ‘Home Office to tell refugees to complete questionnaire in English or risk refusal’, The Guardian, 22 February 2023 Insisting on this deadline will therefore invite further legal challenges.
Wendy Williams’s Windrush review criticised the Home Office for inadequately engaging experts outside government. The Home Office has promised to do better, but the test is whether it actually engages lawyers and refugee organisations in designing policies like the new questionnaire and deadline. It should also commission the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) to inspect the use of the questionnaire by asylum case workers.
The prime minister and home secretary are right to speed up decision making and expedite cases where the government already knows the likely outcome. But the Home Office will need to do more to clear the backlog, while imposing unworkable rules to try to win political cover risks undoing their good work.