Living in Limbo

Thousands of people seeking asylum are waiting years for a decision from the Home Office

The Refugee Council has just published a report (July 2021) that reveals just how long many asylum seekers in the UK must wait for an initial decision on whether they will be allowed to remain in this country. Various bodies, including the Home Affairs Select Committee and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Refugees, have raised concerns over the rise in the backlog of cases, yet the Home Office has thus far failed to address the issue over the long term, leaving thousands living in limbo and unable to move forward with their lives. The government’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ contains no proposals to tackle the backlog, and is likely to add further delays to the asylum process.

You can read the report in full here and the key findings below. As CEO of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said: 

“Leaving vulnerable men, women and children waiting for years on end for news of their fate is cruel and unjust. It is an incredibly inefficient, ineffective and unfair way to operate a refugee protection system. We need a system that works by making timely decisions and ensures everybody in need of safety gets a fair hearing.”

Key findings

• At the end of March 2021 there were 66,185 people awaiting an initial decision from the Home Office, the highest number for over a decade.1

• Of these, three quarters (over 50,000 people) had been waiting more than 6 months; again, the highest for over a decade.

• The number of people awaiting an initial decision for more than a year increased almost tenfold from 3,588 people in 2010 to 33,016 in 2020.2

• The number of children awaiting an initial decision for more than a year increased more than twelve-fold from 563 children in 2010 to 6,887 in 2020.3

• At the end of December 2020, 7 out of 10 people who had been waiting more than six months for a decision had actually been waiting more than a year and almost 5% had been waiting more than 3 years.

• At the end of December 2020, 2,284 people had been waiting 3 years or more for an initial decision, of which 253 people had been waiting for 5 years or more. 55 of these were children.

• The backlog in initial decisions is primarily a result of decision-making failing to keep pace with the number of applications for asylum.

• The percentage of cases that had an initial decision within 6 months fell from 87% in 2014 to just 20% in 2020.

• Whilst the number of caseworkers at the Home Office has increased over the last decade, the average number of interviews and decisions carried out each month has decreased.

• The backlog has an appalling impact on the mental health and wellbeing of those waiting for months or years on end, causing uncertainty and high levels of anxiety while they await a decision.

• For every year of delay, the additional accommodation and support costs to the Home Office are estimated to be at least £8,765 per person.

• The total cost per year of the backlog of people awaiting an initial decision for more than 6 months is estimated to be approximately £220 million.

Recommendations by the Refugee Council

The Home Office needs to take urgent action to address the backlog by:

• Implementing the proposals set out by the UNHCR to reform the registration, screening and decision-making process, including:

  • Introducing an effective triaging and prioritisation system
  • Introducing simplified asylum case processing
  • Frontloading the asylum system to enable more information to be gathered earlier in the process.

• Undertake and publish a review to determine the reasons for the backlog and put in place an action plan to address it by a published deadline.

• Establish a dedicated backlog clearance team utilising the learning from the work of the Case Resolution Directorate. Introduce an online system to allow applicants to find out which team is dealing with their case and to check the status of their case.

• Increase the number of caseworkers to ensure the system is properly resourced over the long term, and invest in them to improve staff retention.

 • Review the previous recommendations from the Home Affairs Select Committee and Independent Chief Inspector of Borders & Immigration and report on how the recommendations were taken forward, and why the actions taken to date have failed to address the backlog.

• To improve transparency, amend the quarterly Immigration Statistics to include a more detailed breakdown of the length of time people have been waiting for an initial decision.

The report is based on data published by the Home Office as well as data obtained from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

1Home Office Quarterly Immigration Statistics – Year ending March 2021

2 FOI data showing the number of applicants (including dependents) waiting more than a year for an initial decision at the end of December 2020

3 FOI data showing the number of children (this includes separated children and children who are a dependent), waiting more than a year for an initial decision at the end of December 2020

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