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The UK’s asylum backlog

05 Apr 2023

This briefing note, originally published on 22 February 2023, has been updated to reflect recent policy developments and the publication of data for the whole of 2022.

The UK has accumulated a large backlog of asylum cases. On 13 December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to clear the backlog by the end of 2023.

This briefing note examines what we know about the UK’s asylum backlog, its causes, and its consequences.

  1. Key Points
    • On 31 December 2022, there were around 132,000 asylum applications awaiting an initial decision in the UK, comprising around 161,000 people.
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    • At the end of 2021, the UK had the second-largest asylum backlog in Europe after Germany.
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    • Asylum applications increased in 2021 and 2022, which added to an existing backlog.
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    • A decline in the number of decisions made on asylum claims has been an important driver of backlog.
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    • The time it takes for an asylum application to receive an initial Home Office decision has increased substantially in recent years.
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    • The decline in caseworker decision-making has no definitive explanation, but plausible reasons include administrative issues and policy changes.
      More…
    • Slow asylum decision-making is financially costly, and there is evidence that it hampers refugee integration
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    • Proposals to reduce asylum backlogs include fast-tracking some applications and employing more asylum casework staff.
      More…
  1. Understanding the Evidence

    The asylum backlog is the number of asylum claims awaiting a decision. ... Click to read more.

    In any given period, the change in the size of the asylum backlog is driven by the number of new asylum applications minus the number of decisions and withdrawals. If the number of new applications is greater than the number of decisions plus withdrawals, the backlog grows. Conversely, if there are more decided and withdrawn applications in a given period than there are new applications, the backlog shrinks.

    Depending on what is included, there are different counts of the asylum backlog.

    Some counts include only applications awaiting an initial decision from the Home Office (an administrative decision) and therefore exclude those awaiting the outcome of an appeal to an immigration tribunal (a judicial decision). Other counts include asylum applications at any stage of the administrative or judicial process and hence include applications awaiting an initial government decision, as well as those awaiting the outcome of an appeal. Some figures cited in public debates include people who have been refused and have exhausted all rights of appeal but have yet to be removed from the country. In this briefing note, we focus on applications awaiting an initial decision from the Home Office because this makes up the large majority of pending cases and accounts for most of the growth over time.

    The asylum backlog figure is also affected by the inclusion of family members. Each asylum application requests protection for a ‘main applicant’, and some include requests for protection for the main applicant’s close family members, known as ‘dependants’. These dependants include a partner and any children under 18, but not parents, siblings, extended family, or adult children. The dependants on an application receive the same outcome as the main applicant (Immigration Rules, Paragraph 349).

    If family members are included, the backlog is larger and refers to the number of people in the UK waiting for an asylum decision rather than the number of applications. Because only one asylum decision is taken per application, this commentary generally refers to applications (main applicants only) rather than people. There are, however, some circumstances where it makes more sense to speak of the number of people in the backlog, such as discussions around the number of asylum seekers in need of accommodation.

    Finally, the Home Office publishes data once a year on the asylum ‘work in progress’, known as the ‘WIP’. This is the widest measure of the backlog and refers to the total number of people in the asylum system (for years ending 30 June). This comprises all of the following: (1) applicants awaiting an initial decision, (2) those awaiting an appeal outcome, (3) individuals who have been recorded as having absconded, (4) those whose claims have been treated as implicitly withdrawn due to their failure to complete an asylum questionnaire or attend a substantive asylum interview, and (5) unsuccessful asylum applicants awaiting removal from the UK. As of 30 June 2022, the asylum WIP stood at 166,085.

On 31 December 2022, there were around 132,000 asylum applications awaiting an initial decision in the UK, comprising around 161,000 people

The UK’s asylum backlog – that is, the number of asylum cases awaiting a Home Office decision – has grown substantially in recent years (Figure 1). On 31 December 2022, 132,182 main applicants were awaiting an initial decision, or 160,919 people if we include family members applying with them. A further 4,051 applications were awaiting further review, such as the outcome of an appeal to the First-tier Tribunal. These figures exclude applications awaiting a judicial review or people whose asylum application has been unsuccessful. Of the 132,000 main applicants awaiting an initial decision, 67% (around 89,000) had waited for more than six months.

The backlog of around 132,000 applications at the end of 2022 reflects a more than thirteen-fold increase compared to the end of 2012 when it stood at 9,871. Most of this increase happened in the last four years. On 31 December 2018, the backlog stood at around 27,000 applications and increased by almost five times in four years.

Figure 1

This is not the only time in the UK’s recent history where a large asylum backlog has formed. Since 1992, the largest asylum backlog was recorded at the end of 1999, at around 125,000 main applicants. The backlog at the end of 2022 was thus slightly higher than the late 1990s peak. Note that the December 2022 backlog of 132,000 is measured differently and cannot be compared to reported figures of over 400,000 ‘unresolved’ cases in the late 2000s and early 2010s, as described further below.

Figure 2

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At the end of 2021, the UK had the second-largest asylum backlog in Europe after Germany

According to data compiled by the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), at the end of 2021, the only other European country with an asylum backlog larger than the UK’s, which stood at around 101,000, was Germany, with around 108,000 people awaiting an initial decision on their asylum claim (Figure 3). Spain’s backlog was around 72,000, and France’s was 50,000. These figures comprise both main applicants and family members.

France and Germany receive many more asylum applicants than the UK (see Figure 10 in our briefing, Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK). In 2021, Germany received around 191,000 applicants (including family members), France 121,000, Spain 65,000, and the UK 56,000. In other words, the UK had an unusually large backlog compared to the number of asylum applications it received.

Figure 3

The larger UK backlog results in part from slower processing times. In 2021, UK asylum applications took an average of around 20 months to receive an initial Home Office decision. Other countries that receive comparable numbers of asylum applicants – such as Germany, Spain, and France – process claims quicker (Figure 4).

Figure 4

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Asylum applications increased in 2021 and 2022, which added to an existing backlog

From 2015 to 2020, the number of asylum applications was relatively stable, fluctuating between 25,000 and 36,000 per year. This pattern changed in 2021 and 2022, with higher numbers of applications by the standards of recent years (Figure 5). This increase in asylum applications has contributed to the backlog. But it is not the only factor driving it. As Figure 2 above shows, the backlog was already growing steadily from 2010 onwards, well before the increase in applications. Another driver of the backlog is slower processing of applications, examined in the next section.

Figure 5

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A decline in the number of decisions made on asylum claims has been an important driver of backlog growth

In recent years, the Home Office has increased its number of staff processing asylum claims, known as asylum caseworkers or asylum decision-makers: from 260 in the year ending March 2016 to 614 in the year ending March 2022 (Figure 6, blue bars). The Prime Minister said on 13 December 2022 there were 1,200 caseworkers and pledged that this number would be doubled. On 19 December 2022, the Home Office stated that their latest target was to have 2,500 caseworkers by August 2023.

However, in recent years, the larger staff of asylum caseworkers in the Home Office made fewer decisions than in the past. For example, 29% fewer decisions were made in YE March 2022 than in YE March 2020 (Figure 6, blue line).

Figure 6

This indicates that the average number of decisions per caseworker per year has gone down (Figure 7). In the year ending March 2016, 260 caseworkers made an average of 101 initial decisions each. In the year ending March 2022, 614 caseworkers made an average of 24 initial decisions each – a quarter of the decisions made in 2015/16.

Figure 7

The increase in asylum applications in recent years thus explains only part of the backlog. Another part of the explanation is that fewer decisions have been made by asylum caseworkers despite a growing number of staff. For example, if the Home Office had maintained the same number of decisions it was making in 2016 (around 31,000 per year) in the six years ending September 2022, the backlog would be almost 37,000 lower by 30 September 2022 – or 32% smaller. If, over the same period, it had increased decision-making capacity to 40,000 decisions per year (which is roughly the number of applications received in 2015), the backlog would be about 82,000 lower and stand at 35,400 rather than 117,400 – a 70% decrease.

If caseworkers take longer to make decisions, that does not necessarily mean that they are performing less well. Decisions that are made more quickly could be less accurate. As explained in the next section, a variety of reasons explain slower decision-making.

Even without longstanding problems processing sufficient numbers of applications, there would always have been a spike in the backlog in the year ending September 2022 due to the above-average increase in asylum applications that year. However, roughly half (48%) of the backlog built up before July 2021, during a period when asylum applications were not unusually high by recent UK standards.

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The time it takes for an asylum application to receive an initial Home Office decision has increased substantially in recent years

Fewer decisions per caseworker per year means that it has taken longer to resolve asylum cases. In Q2 2014, 87% of applications received an initial decision within six months – compared with 10% in Q2 2022 (Figure 8). Again, most of this decrease took place before the increase in asylum applications that took place in 2021 and 2022.

Figure 8

Of the roughly 14,500 applications that received an initial decision in 2021, 4% received their decision within 6 months, 19% within a year, and 53% took at least 1.5 years to receive an initial Home Office decision (Figure 9).

Figure 9

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The decline in caseworker decision-making has no definitive explanation, but plausible reasons include administrative issues and policy changes

A decline in the number of decisions per caseworker provides perhaps the single strongest explanation for the increase in the UK’s asylum backlog; as outlined above, if caseworkers had made the same average number of decisions per year as were made in the mid-2010s, then the backlog would be substantially smaller today.

Available data and evidence do not provide a definitive explanation for declines in the number of decisions per caseworker per year. However, there are several plausible explanations. Five are provided here.

1. Administrative problems and high staff turnover

A 2021 inspection of the UK’s asylum casework by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) highlighted a number of issues in the UK’s asylum processing. These included inadequate training for decision-makers; a reliance on Excel spreadsheets; low morale, and, relatedly, high staff turnover.

The report notes that it can take an average of 12–18 months for an asylum decision-maker to become “fully proficient” but that it was unlikely that caseworkers would stay in the role beyond 24 months. According to a letter from a Home Office civil servant to the Home Affairs Committee, the average annual turnover of Home Office caseworkers between 2018/19 and 2020/21 was 33%. A further letter from the immigration minister said that the attrition rate for decision-makers in the year from April 2021 to March 2022 was 46%. When caseworker numbers are increasing (Figure 6, above), it follows that a higher share of caseworkers will be new recruits, and so the average number of decisions per caseworker can be expected to fall.

The ICIBI noted that the low morale that drives high staff turnover resulted from pressure to meet targets, the perception among decision-makers that management was concerned more about the quantity rather than the quality of decisions, and a lack of career development.

Concerns about high staff turnover and the quality of training were also reported in a previous immigration inspector’s report of the asylum system in 2017.

2. The end of the six-month ‘customer service’ standard

On 1 April 2014, the Home Office introduced an internal target, or ‘customer service standard’, to process 98% of “straightforward” cases within six months. This followed the publication in October 2013 of a report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee into the UK’s asylum system, which criticised the time taken for asylum applicants to receive a decision.

The six-month service standard was abandoned in January 2019. According to a report on asylum casework by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, the lack of a service standard has “exacerbated delays”. On 20 September 2022, the Home Office said that it is working to reintroduce a service standard.

That said, declines in caseworker decision-making were evident from 2016 onwards (see Figure 7 above), three years before the abandonment of the service standard. The abandonment of the service standard may thus be, in part, a consequence of slower decision-making rather than the main cause of it.

3. COVID-19

While declines in decision-making preceded the pandemic, the immigration inspector also found in his report on asylum casework that COVID-19 caused an additional decline in caseworker productivity in 2020, resulting from fewer face-to-face interviews with asylum applicants. In 2020, fewer initial decisions were made (14,304) than in any calendar year since 1991.

A low average number of decisions per caseworker continued into 2021 and 2022 (see Figure 7). It is not clear to what extent this continued low rate of decisions is a hangover from COVID and its associated policies.

4. New rules on inadmissibility

In January 2021, the UK government implemented new rules on ‘inadmissibility’, which aim to remove asylum seekers from the UK where the Home Office believes they could and should have applied for asylum in another country.

Home Office guidance states that the removal of asylum seekers deemed to be inadmissible must take place within a “reasonable period” and that “As a general guideline, it is expected that in most cases, a safe third country will agree to admit a person within 6 months of the claim being recorded”. The guidance also states that “the inadmissibility process must not create a lengthy ‘limbo’ position”.

The inadmissibility rules add two additional steps to the asylum process, which may have added to asylum processing times. First, the Home Office assesses an individual for inadmissibility, which takes time. Second, the Home Office will try to find a safe country to accept an individual it deems to be inadmissible. If the Home Office cannot remove within six months a person it deems inadmissible, then it would normally consider their asylum claim in the UK. This would have the effect of adding more time to the period between an applicant’s initial submission of their claim and their initial decision.

People being assessed for inadmissibility are counted in the backlog statistics. In theory, one could argue that removing people to have their claims considered elsewhere would reduce the backlog. However, only 0.1% of those assessed for inadmissibility had been removed as of June 2022.

From 1 January 2021 to 30 September 2022, the government served around 21,000 ‘notices of intent’ to asylum applicants, indicating that they would be assessed for inadmissibility owing to the claimant’s previous presence in or connection to that country (Figure 10). During this period, 83 people were deemed inadmissible, and 21 people were removed to safe third countries.

Unless there is a dramatic change in the UK’s capacity to relocate people with pending asylum claims to other countries, the main impact of the inadmissibility procedure will continue to be to delay the processing of asylum claims. Around 10,000 people who had been considered for inadmissibility were subsequently admitted to the UK asylum system. This figure (the green bar in Figure 10) will go up over time as more of the people assessed for inadmissibility (the teal bar) are either (1) deemed to be admissible or (2) are deemed to be inadmissible but cannot be removed.

Figure 10


5. The suspension of the Detained Fast Track process

As Figure 8 shows (above), asylum processing speed began a downward trend from Q3 2015, and some of this decline may have been due to the suspension in July 2015 of a fast-track process for deciding asylum claims.

In 2003, the government introduced a new process for accelerating asylum claims called the Detained Fast Track. Under the scheme, any adult asylum applicant could be detained if the Home Office believed a “quick decision” was possible on the applicant’s claim – that is, within fourteen days. The refusal rate of asylum claims processed under the Detained Fast Track was very high: around 99% from 2008 to 2010. These rapid decisions will have brought down the average processing time.

From 2005 to 2014, the Home Office processed anywhere from around 1,300 to 4,300 adult applications (main applicants) per year under the Detained Fast Track process (Figure 11). During the same period, the total number of applications each year ranged from around 18,000 to 26,000. This means that fast-tracked applications made up between around 5% and 18% of total applications in any given year. This suggests that the suspension of the DFT is not primarily responsible for post-2015 declines in the speed of asylum processing, although it is likely to have contributed.

The government was compelled to suspend the Detained Fast Track on 2 July 2015, following a series of successful legal challenges relating to the safety and fairness of the procedure.

Figure 11


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Slow asylum decision-making is financially costly, and there is evidence that it hampers refugee integration

Having a large backlog of individuals who must wait long periods for their asylum claim to be decided has a number of important consequences.

For those who will be successful in their asylum claims, there is a mental health and integration cost of long waiting times. The government does not generally permit asylum seekers to work during this period and gives destitute asylum seekers £6.42 per day in asylum support costs to cover food and other living costs except accommodation. For those in hotels that provide meals, asylum seekers are instead given £9.10 per week to cover clothes, non-prescription medication and travel. A 2021 review of the research literature found that a shorter asylum waiting time had a large positive impact on long-term employment outcomes for asylum seekers who go on to be successful. A study in Germany similarly found that longer bans on work for asylum applicants were associated with lower employment rates in the future. Asylum seekers interviewed for a report by Refugee Action reported that waiting for an asylum decision causes stress and anxiety. A report by the House of Commons Library on asylum processing delays points to two additional academic studies that highlight the possible negative health consequences on asylum seekers of slow processing. The first is a 2018 paper published in the British Medical Journal on the health of ‘forced migrants’, including asylum seekers, which said that “Unemployment exacerbates social exclusion. Long periods of inactivity provide time to ruminate on past experiences and worries about the future.” The second study, published in 2022, examined the experiences of asylum seekers in Sweden. It found that “overwhelming uncertainty about the future and the indefinite waiting time for a decision” on asylum claims” caused “intense feelings of psychological distress” in participants.

For those asylum applicants who will be unsuccessful, longer waiting times increase the chance for them to form families or other ties that could hinder their removal (UNHCR).

In addition to the mental health and integration cost to asylum seekers, there is a financial cost to the government of slower decision-making. Many who claim asylum in the UK are destitute and require accommodation and support (see our briefing on Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK). The larger the backlog, the greater the cost of providing this support. Over the past year, the government has also struggled to source private rental accommodation in communities, which is its preferred way of accommodating asylum applicants. This has led to the widespread use of accommodation at military sites, such as Napier Barracks and Penally Camp, in hotels, B&Bs, and in detention centres. At an oral evidence session of the Home Affairs Committee on 26 October 2022, a Home Office official said that the cost of housing asylum seekers in hotels stood at £5.6 million per day. These costs would be considerably lower if the backlog were smaller.

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Proposals to reduce asylum backlogs include fast-tracking some applications and employing more asylum casework staff

Approaches to dealing with asylum backlogs typically fall into one of the following categories:

  • Increasing the resources dedicated to processing cases, such as increasing staff numbers;
  • Attempting to make the asylum process more ‘efficient’, such as by simplifying guidance or introducing specialisation);
  • Prioritising applicants from groups with particularly high or low success rates to make faster decisions on those cases;
  • Granting status to people with longstanding, unprocessed claims without completing the full asylum casework process.

In a speech on 13 December 2022 to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to clear the asylum backlog by the end of 2023. Significantly, the pledge was later clarified to refer to a fixed number of cases: the roughly 92,000 applications lodged before 28 June 2022, when the Nationality and Borders Act came into effect. Sunak promised to double the number of asylum caseworkers from 1,200 to 2,400 (since revised to 2,500 by August 2023), and triple asylum caseworker productivity through a redesign of “the entire process for caseworking on an end-to-end basis”.

The government has proposed various plans to speed up decision-making, although it is hard to predict whether this will triple caseworker productivity. At a recent oral evidence session of the Home Affairs Committee, a Home Office official described a pilot in Leeds that aimed to speed up asylum decision-making and had experienced some success. At that evidence session, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration said that the Leeds pilot had doubled the rate of asylum decision-making, from an average of 1.3 to 2.7 decisions per week – with the aim for each decision maker to make four decisions per week. On 23 November 2022, the Home Secretary said that the Leeds pilot was due to be rolled out to all Home Office asylum teams by May 2023.

The Prime Minister’s speech also promised shorter guidance, fewer interviews and less paperwork, and specialist caseworkers by nationality. This would include a “dedicated unit” of 400 staff to process Albanian asylum claims, which increased substantially in 2022 (see Albanian asylum seekers in the UK and EU: A look at recent data). As of 31 December 2022, Albanians made up 16% of the backlog (Figure 12).

Figure 12


In 2021, the United Nations Refugee Agency recommended that the UK should “frontload resources and invest in registration and screening procedures to limit flaws at the earliest stage of the asylum process”. It also recommended “triaging” cases, making quicker decisions on applications that are either “very likely, or very unlikely” to succeed. In December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proposed fast-tracking applications from ‘safe’ countries such as Albania. This followed a Labour proposal along similar lines earlier in the month. However, the Labour proposal also referenced fast-tracking manifestly well-founded claims as well, something not discussed explicitly in the Prime Minister’s announcement.

A 2020 review of asylum practices in Europe found that fast-tracking the least and best-founded cases can be an effective way to reduce the total number of people in an asylum backlog, although it can have negative impacts on applicants who are not fast-tracked if resources are diverted to more straightforward cases. UNHCR has also argued that where cases are fast-tracked because they are considered less likely to succeed, governments need safeguards that remove certain applicants from the ‘fast track’ if their cases are more complex.

On 23 February 2023, the Home Office announced that it would implement “streamlined asylum processing” to deal with manifestly well-founded applications submitted before 28 June 2022. Under the new process, the citizens of five countries – Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen – would typically have their asylum claim determined on the basis of a completed questionnaire rather than a face-to-face interview. It has been reported that the Home Office estimates that 12,000 people, less than a tenth of the number in the backlog, would be eligible for this streamlined process.

The questionnaire has been a particular focus of criticism. At present, it is said to be available only in English, and commentators have criticised the complexity of the form, which needs to be completed within 20 working days.

Grant rates vary substantially by nationality, and the Home Office has selected these five nationalities because they have a high success rate at the initial decision – 98% or higher in 2022 (Figure 13).

Figure 13


Finally, some backlog-reduction proposals involve granting status to people without full consideration of their asylum claims. This would typically be restricted to those who have been waiting a long time for a decision. For example, in 2022, Ireland granted status to all applicants who had been waiting for an asylum decision for at least two years as part of a larger regularisation programme.

A UK example concerns the ‘backlog clearance’ programme, initiated in 2006 and continued under the Coalition government after 2010, which granted status to some people with long-standing asylum claims. The ‘legacy caseload’ to be cleared was described by John Reid, then Home Secretary, as comprising between 400,000 and 450,000 individuals. However, this number is not comparable with backlog figures cited in this briefing note because, as a report by the Home Affairs Committee notes, and as Reid stated in parliament, it dealt with all “unresolved cases”, which included people who had been refused but not removed, and many duplicate records, withdrawn cases, and cases that had been resolved but not recorded as such. It is, therefore, not accurate to suggest that the 2022 backlog of just over 160,000 individuals is lower than the backlog in the late 2000s or early 2010s.

The Prime Minister indicated in a parliamentary debate in December that he would not support “blanket amnesties, as happened in the past”. Previous Conservative and Labour governments have both offered status to people who had waited for long periods without a decision.

Acknowledgements

This research was made possible thanks to the support of the Oak Foundation. Special thanks go to CJ McKinney for detailed comments on a draft of this briefing note; and Mihnea Cuibus for research assistance.

Authors

Peter William Walsh
Madeleine Sumption

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