Social Justice

Thousands of refugees left destitute as Rishi Sunak boasts of clearing asylum backlog

MInisters claim they have met one of Rishi Sunak's key promises. But critics say they have pushed thousands into homelessness by doing so

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

Critics have accused the government of leaving thousands of refugees in destitution in its drive to clear the legacy asylum backlog by the end of 2023. It comes as ministers faced controversy over boasts they had met one of Rishi Sunak’s main pledges.

Home secretary James Cleverly toured TV studios on Tuesday (2 January) to claim a key government promise had been fulfilled, with all cases in the “legacy” asylum backlog processed by the end of 2023.

But critics claimed the government had “cooked the books” by withdrawing and fudging cases, and pointed out that the drive to process asylum claims had pushed refugees onto the streets.

As The Big Issue has reported, the rapid processing of asylum claims, coupled with changes to the notice period given to newly-recognised refugees to leave Home Office accommodation, such as hotels, resulted in the number evicted into homelessness tripling.

“The government’s failed attempt to clear their self-titled ‘legacy backlog’ has not been without consequence as they have left thousands of refugees destitute in the process,” Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais, told The Big Issue.

“With no plan for onward accommodation for ‘new refugees’, and with many people’s asylum claims erroneously withdrawn due to government errors, our volunteers are dealing daily with asylum seekers left on the UK’s streets as a result of this government’s failures.”

Freezing weather and a lack of housing has meant refugees whose claims are processed and told to leave Home Office accommodation are often finding themselves on the streets in life-threatening conditions. Phil Kerry, the CEO of London homelessness charity New Horizon, told The Big Issue he had to take a refugee to A&E after finding him sleeping on the organisation’s doorstep.

Evictions from asylum hotels are set to resume on Wednesday (3 January) after being paused for Christmas. The government has also abandoned a part of the asylum process which gave many newly-recognised refugees just a week to find somewhere to live.

Both U-turns, revealed by The Big Issue, came amid widespread outcry from councils and charities that the Home Office’s policies were driving homelessness and placing strain on already-struggling housing services.

“The reality is that the Home Office has lost track of too many people who have been removed from the asylum process and at the same time left those who have been granted refugee protection to fend for themselves, at risk of sleeping rough during the winter months,” said Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council.

“After mismanaging the asylum system for so many years the government was right to clear the backlog but was wrong to do it in a way that has failed to see the face behind the case and instead has treated people simply as statistics rather than with the care and compassion they deserve.”

Despite insistence from ministers, 4,500 cases remain in the ‘legacy’ backlog, having been deemed ‘complicated’. James Cleverly said the government has processed more claims than any year since 2002, and has returned 50 asylum hotels back to private use.

“This government’s claims about ‘clearing’ the asylum backlog are, at best, misleading. We have seen forced withdrawal of claims, which is liable to lead to a rise in legal cases as people challenge them, along with a reclassification of people’s claims to bury numbers,” Daniel Sohege, director of migration charity Stand For All, told The Big Issue.

“This is not a way to treat vulnerable people seeking safety. All it inevitably does is lead to more people being left in limbo, while kept in increasingly dire conditions.”

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, condemned prime minister Rishi Sunak’s claim that the government has cleared the asylum backlog as ‘just not true’.

“I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That’s exactly what we’ve done,” Sunak posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Although Sunak promised to clear the legacy backlog by the end of 2023, made up of cases lodged before June 2022, around 100,000 cases remain stuck in the overall asylum backlog.

Cleverly told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was “not going to rush” the remaining cases, and would not put a date on when they would be cleared.

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