Refugee charities have condemned the UK’s asylum system as “devastating” as new figures reveal the backlog in processing claims has hit a record high.
Data released on Thursday (25 May) by the Office For National Statistics (ONS) showed that more than 172,000 people were waiting on an initial decision on their application at the end of March 2023. This represents a 50% increase since the same time last year, and means the backlog of asylum seeker cases in the UK is bigger than at any point since records began in 2010.
Red Cross policy and advocacy manager Alice Lucas told NationalWorld that this is “devastating” for refugees who have come to the UK in the hopes of finding help and safety. “Desperate men, women, and children are waiting a really long time to re-start their lives,” she said.
“When we talk about the backlog in asylum seeker cases, it’s really important to remember not just the cost to the taxpayer - which is huge - but also the cost in humanitarian terms,” she explained. “When you’re in the system, you’re in limbo. People don’t get decisions on their claims for months or years. It’s really difficult on your mental and physical health.”
Ms Lucas also argued that the accommodation being used to house asylum seekers, such as military bases, are “inappropriate and unsuitable” for people who have been through trauma. “Imagine fleeing your country because of a war, and ending up in a military base?” She said, before pointing out that these sites are often very isolated, which makes it difficult for refugees to access healthcare or schooling for their children.
Red Cross told NationalWorld that a way to end the backlog would be to create more streamlined application process for people from countries with high asylum grant rates. “In 2022,” Ms Lucas said, “a huge proportion of people who came to the UK were from Syria and Eritrea - and 98% of these claims were granted.”
This, the charity argued, proves these people “really need asylum”, meaning it would make sense to create a faster process for these countries - and leave the more intense processing and decision-making for the more complex cases.
The Home Office recently adopted this approach with asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq, pledging to fast-track more than 20,000 applications in an attempt to clear the backlog. But charities have warned that there are flaws which mean this system could actually add to the backlog.
Refugee Action’s policy and research manager Tara Povey told NationalWorld: “The issue with this system is it involves rolling out a questionnaire to people seeking asylum. This questionnaire can only be completed in English, is lengthy, complicated, and asks questions which can be traumatic - making it hugely difficult for people to complete, especially if they do not have English as a first language.”
Meanwhile, Ms Lucas pointed out that the questionnaire can only be completed in a limited time period - which does not allow enough time for people to seek legal advice. Both charities warned that this will cause a bigger burden on the backlog, as questionnaires may not be properly filled out, leading to more processing.
The ONS figures released on Thursday (25 May) also showed that the UK took 6,000 arrivals from refugee resettlement schemes. Although this number does not include people from Ukraine and Hong Kong, where the UK accepted 114,000 and 52,000 long-term arrivals from, it is still “far too low” according to Red Cross.
Ms Lucas said the reason the number is so low is because there are “almost no safe or legal routes to the UK”, meaning that the limited resettlement schemes are “very difficult” to access. “The UN Resettlement Scheme for instance is only available to 1% of displaced people worldwide,” she said.
What Red Cross would like to see, Ms Lucas explained, is the expansion of safe and legal routes to the UK - for example by expanding the definition of ‘family’ in reunion schemes so more people can be reunited with loved ones, or by issuing humanitarian visas before people reach the UK so they can have their claims assessed once they are in a safe place.
“What this would do,” Ms Lucas told NationalWorld, “is mean people do not feel forced to take these dangerous journeys across the Channel, for example. This would reduce the risk of vulnerable asylum seekers falling into the hands of smugglers, and tackle the backlog by making the processing of applications easier and quicker.”