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How many people need to be sent to Rwanda or have their asylum claim processed under the next government?

20 Jun 2024

Labour and the Conservatives go into the general election with different approaches to asylum claims. The Conservative policy, embodied in its Illegal Migration Act and Rwanda policy, is not to process asylum applications from people entering the UK by irregular means. The Labour policy, as expressed by Keir Starmer, is to “process the claims”, removing from the UK only those who are refused asylum.

Whichever party forms the next government will need to apply its policy to a substantial number of people.

How many asylum claims would a Labour government need to process?

In the event of a Labour government, the numbers involved are relatively straightforward to pin down. If all asylum claims are to be processed, the key figure is 86,500. That is the number of people awaiting an initial asylum decision as of 31 March 2024 (rising to 118,300 if family members of main applicants are included; see Figure 1).

Figure 1

While this is just the backlog, and does not take into account asylum claims made since March 2024 and into the future, the capacity of the Home Office to process claims has increased markedly since 2022. Caseworkers made 26,200 decisions on asylum applications in the first three months of 2024, and the number of pending claims fell 9% in that period. The Labour manifesto promises more caseworkers, whose numbers had already risen to 2,600 compared to 800 in early 2022.

The Illegal Migration Act (IMA) presents a potential legal barrier. The IMA is not yet fully in force. If fully implemented, it would prevent the processing of most asylum claims regardless of their merit. Labour would presumably not bring the IMA into force. The logic of the party’s position, in fact, points to repeal – or at least, substantial amendment. Media reports suggest that it would opt for modification rather than outright repeal, although the party’s manifesto does not explicitly address this either way.

As things stand, the part of the IMA banning people from being granted legal status (even if processed and found to be refugees) is already in force. But there are some exceptions to this ban. In particular, it remains possible for the Home Secretary to opt to grant legal status to refugees despite the ban, so long as the core of the act (section 2) is not yet in force. A Labour Home Secretary may be able to rely on this provision to process claims in the short to medium term, pending a decision on changes to the IMA.

How many asylum seekers would a Conservative government need to send to Rwanda?

With another Conservative government, the question is more complicated.

The UK’s treaty with Rwanda does not require any particular number of people to be relocated. There is no minimum quota, nor any upper limit. But, domestically, the Illegal Migration Act has implications for who would need to be sent to Rwanda.

In theory, asylum seekers would need to be sent to Rwanda if they cannot receive a decision on their asylum claim in the UK. This would include anyone (a) whose claims cannot be processed under the IMA; or (b) whose claims can be processed but they are found to be a refugee and cannot be granted legal status (explained further below).

(a) The group most obviously affected are those who arrived in the UK by irregular means on or after 20 July 2023. As of mid-April, there were around 52,000 asylum applications in the backlog lodged since that date (plus an unknown number of family members on those applications). Once the IMA is fully in force, most of these people could not have their cases processed and would only be removable to Rwanda. That is because the act stipulates that removal to most countries of origin is not allowed, except for certain (mostly European) countries deemed safe.

(b) Another 21,000 cases were lodged from 7 March 2023 to 19 July 2023. An amendment to the IMA while it was going through Parliament means that these cases can be processed under the act, but those found to be refugees cannot routinely be granted legal status. This is likely to be the majority of the 21,000 in this group, given that most asylum applications in recent years have been successful. While the IMA would not legally require the removal of these refugees to Rwanda, it is unclear how else their ‘limbo’ status in the UK might be resolved. One possibility is the act’s exceptions allowing legal status to be granted to prevent human rights violations or breach of an international treaty, although the precise scope and significance of these exceptions are untested.

It is not possible to say with certainty that all these people would need to be sent to Rwanda under a Conservative government. The party has not said when it would bring the IMA into force. The government could attempt to send some people to Rwanda under existing powers, without bringing the act into force. The Conservative manifesto refers to asylum claims being processed “within six months”. Since processing would not be possible under the IMA, this could be taken as indicating a willingness to process some older claims before implementing the legislation in relation to newer claims. The 20 July cut-off date could be changed by regulations to facilitate this. This would reduce the number of people the government would be legally required to remove to Rwanda or another safe country.

More speculatively, while Rwanda is currently the only country willing to accept large numbers of people inadmissible to the UK asylum system, a Conservative government might be able to secure agreement from other nations. This would give more options for ‘safe third country’ removals, other than Rwanda.

Finally, there may be some people in the backlog whose claims are not directly affected by the IMA. This would include people who entered irregularly before 7 March 2023 but only lodged their asylum claim on or after that date. Others could have arrived in the UK legally and claimed asylum because conditions changed in their home country, which remains legitimate grounds for asylum under the IMA.

For these reasons, there is no precise figure for how many people would need to be removed to Rwanda if the scheme were to proceed after the election. The number is likely to be in the tens of thousands, depending on how many cases lodged after the cut-off date remain in the asylum backlog at the point when the Illegal Migration Act is brought fully into force, and how many asylum seekers arrive in future.

If correct, this would bring renewed focus on Rwanda’s capacity to host and process large numbers of asylum seekers. Both the UK and Rwandan governments have stressed that the scheme is uncapped, and that Rwanda is willing to take as many people as the UK can send. Beyond that, there have not been clear or consistent indications of how many removals could realistically be expected. The UK’s own capacity to begin removals at scale, given potential logistical constraints (such as detention capacity) and legal challenges, would also be tested. For further discussion, see Q&A: The UK’s policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

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