Has the asylum backlog been cleared?

3 January 2024
What was claimed

The asylum backlog has been cleared.

Our verdict

This is misleading. The PM’s claim relates to a subsection of outstanding asylum cases called the “legacy backlog”, rather than the overall backlog of cases which still stands at almost 100,000. Most “legacy backlog” cases have been resolved but around 4,500 are still marked as awaiting an initial decision.

What was claimed

The government has now cleared the initial decision asylum legacy backlog.

Our verdict

It depends how you define “cleared”. The government says all legacy backlog cases have been processed, and that this means they have been cleared. But around 4,500 more complex cases are still marked as awaiting an initial decision, and have not been resolved.

What was claimed

Over 112,000 cases are now cleared with a lower grant rate than last year.

Our verdict

This is correct according to new ad-hoc data published by the Home Office, though full 2023 data has yet to be published. Between 1 January and 28 December 2023 a total of 112,138 initial asylum decisions were made. The Home Office says that excluding “non-substantive decisions” there was a 67% grant rate, compared to 76% in 2022.

“I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023.
That’s exactly what we’ve done.
Over 112,000 cases are now cleared with a lower grant rate than last year, a key part of our plan to stop the boats.”

In a post shared on X (formerly Twitter), and an accompanying graphic, the Prime Minister claimed that the “asylum backlog” has been “cleared”.

This is misleading. As is set out on the government web page Mr Sunak’s post linked to, his claim actually relates to the “legacy backlog”, a specific subsection of the total number of outstanding asylum cases which the government pledged to clear by the end of 2023.

The government says all of these cases have now been processed and most—though not all—have been resolved. As of 28 December 2023, around 4,500 “legacy backlog” applications were still awaiting an initial decision, down from around 92,000 last year when the Prime Minister first set out the government’s plan to clear the backlog.

The overall asylum backlog, however, still stands at almost 100,000 cases.

Mr Sunak also claimed: “Over 112,000 cases are now cleared with a lower grant rate than last year.”

Unlike the first part of his post, this claim relates to the overall asylum backlog, not just the “legacy backlog”. The figure counts the total number of initial asylum decisions made between 1 January and 28 December 2023.

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What is the asylum ‘backlog’?

As we’ve written before, the term “asylum backlog” has usually been used to describe the number of asylum applications that are waiting to be resolved by the government. For instance, it’s been used that way by the Migration Observatory, the Institute for Government, the House of Commons Library and the BBC. It’s also been used that way in Parliament, for instance by the Conservative peer Lord Udny-Lister in February 2023.

However in recent months when the government has spoken about the asylum backlog falling, it has typically been referring only to the “legacy backlog”, which it defines as asylum applications made before 28 June 2022, when sections of the Nationality and Borders Act which made changes to the asylum process came into force.

It is important to note that the “legacy backlog” of initial decisions does not provide a full picture of the asylum caseload situation, particularly when the total number of cases awaiting an initial decision is substantially higher.

Last year we fact checked a number of government ministers, including the Prime Minister, who made claims about the “asylum backlog” without being clear that they were referring only to “legacy backlog” cases.

When ministers make claims about the asylum backlog, they should be clear about exactly what they're referring to so as to prevent the public from being misled. It is reasonable to assume that people might think the phrase “asylum backlog” refers to the total number of asylum cases awaiting an initial decision. Given the Prime Minister’s claim related specifically to the backlog of initial decisions for asylum applications made before 28 June 2022, he should have made this clear.

We’ve contacted Number 10 for comment and will update this article if we receive a response.

How many cases have been cleared?

Mr Sunak’s post claiming that the government has cleared the asylum backlog linked to a government webpage which states: “We’ve now cleared the initial decision asylum legacy backlog.”

The latest available data up to 28 December 2023 does show that most of the approximately 92,000 “legacy backlog” cases that were outstanding when the Prime Minister first pledged to clear them last year have received an initial decision.

But whether the whole legacy backlog has been “cleared” depends on the definition used.

A Home Office press release published on 2 January expanded on the claim, and appeared to justify it by saying that all legacy backlog cases had been “reviewed”. The Home Secretary James Cleverly made a similar argument on the Today programme.

However the latest data also shows that 4,537 “legacy backlog” cases are still awaiting an initial decision.

We’ve not found evidence of the government previously setting out a specific definition of how it intended to “clear” the backlog, but while it may have processed all the cases in some form, clearly thousands have yet to be resolved. 

The total number of asylum cases awaiting an initial decision meanwhile stands at 98,599.


What about the 112,000 cases cleared?

Between 1 January and 28 December 2023 a total of 112,138 initial decisions were made—this appears to be the figure Mr Sunak was referring to when he wrote that “over 112,000 cases are now cleared”.

77% of these decisions involved “legacy backlog” cases, with the remainder involving applications made after 28 June 2023 (referred to by the government as “flow backlog” cases).

The Home Office says that of the 112,138 initial decisions, 77,019 were substantive decisions (that is, excluding withdrawn applications and administrative decisions where applications are declared void or the applicant is deceased), with a grant rate of 67%.

These figures were released in an ad-hoc update from the Home Office, but full 2023 data hasn’t yet been published—the Home Office told us that will happen next month.

However, it is true that a grant rate of 67% is approximately 9 percentage points lower than the grant rate in 2022, when 76% of asylum initial decisions were grants of protection or other leave.

Image courtesy of Number 10

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Rishi Sunak to request a correction regarding this claim.

Rishi Sunak did not respond.

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