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Asylum backlog hits record high but people arriving on small boats make up just a third of the queue

The number of asylum seekers left in limbo has hit new highs, but the proportion of asylum claims that have been made by people who arrived on small boats has fallen

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Border Force in Dover in March. Image: Number 10 / Flickr

The backlog of people waiting for a decision on their asylum application is at a record high, latest official figures show, but the majority of claimants in the backlog did not arrive in Britain on small boats. 

Analysis from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford has found that small boat arrivals account for only one third of the asylum backlog, suggesting that other routes into the UK are being overlooked.

The Conservative government has promised to reduce immigration and intensified its attention on the issue of Channel crossings. Ministers most recently announced a series of policy interventions in what they dubbed “small boats week”, that included placing the first group of asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge – which was quickly evacuated over a health scare.

The latest government figures show the need to look at the fuller picture regarding immigration, said Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory.

“Almost the entirety of government asylum policy is focused on the small boats route, which misses the fact that small boats only made up a third of the asylum claims in the backlog data released today,” said McNeil. 

The arrival of people in small boats is high profile, in part, because there is an element of spectacle to it. “It provides images and a focus for campaigners on both sides of the debate,” he continued.

“But people are still arriving in the UK on the back of lorries, that hasn’t stopped, and through other routes too. Are they all claiming asylum or are they also falling into vulnerability or exploitative situations? We need to try to see the full picture, rather than just look at small boat arrivals, to understand what’s going on.”

More than 175,000 asylum seekers were waiting on a decision for whether they will be granted refugee status at the end of June 2023 – up 44% from last year.

In December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his government hoped to clear the legacy backlog of claims – cases awaiting a decision as of 28 June 2002 – by the end of the year. The legacy backlog has been reduced by around a quarter since then but 68,000 claims remain.

There are no legal ways to apply to claim asylum from outside the UK. Some asylum seekers have made claims after having already lived in the UK on a legal visa, such as on a student visa, while others have taken travel into the country without a visa before looking to claim asylum. 

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Small boat arrivals made up only 41% of asylum claims in the 12 months up to June. That’s down from the 45% recorded in the previous year, despite the Tories’ intensifying focus on the issue.

Dr Peter William Walsh, senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “Political debate has been hyper-focused on small boats, 90% of whom claim asylum. Yet in the year to June 2023, small boat arrivals made up only 41% of asylum claims – the remainder will have arrived in the UK via other routes.” 

A Home Office spokesperson said the government remains committed to reducing levels of immigration, adding that the current points-based system is working to encourage the “best and the brightest” to come to the UK, the BBC reports. 

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Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, said: “These new statistics set out in stark terms the complete chaos the Tories have created in the immigration and asylum system. 

“The asylum backlog has reached a new record high, with 175,000 people now waiting for decisions. Only 1%t of last year’s 45,000 small boats cases have received a decision and the number of failed asylum seekers being returned is also down a whopping 70 per cent since 2010. This is a disastrous record for the prime minister and home secretary.

“With this level of mismanagement, there is very little prospect of reducing the eye-wateringly high bill for hotel rooms for all those left in limbo, currently costing the British taxpayer £6 million a day.”

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