The UK asylum backlog: explained

12 April 2024

The Bibby Stockholm bargeIn recent years, the UK’s asylum backlog has been at the heart of the debate over immigration.

Since the 2019 general election it has increased substantially, reaching the highest level on record in June last year, and falling since. In December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out plans to “abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions” in 2023, as part of his five-point plan to reduce illegal immigration. And the government’s progress against that target was the focus of political debate at the start of this year

This article looks at the current scale of the asylum backlog, and how the government’s asylum policy has impacted the processing of applications.

This explainer is part of a series of ‘prebunking’ articles Full Fact is publishing ahead of the next general election, exploring a range of topics which are likely to feature in the campaign. We’ll be updating these articles on a regular basis—this article was last updated on 21 April 2024 and the information in it is correct as of then. 

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What is the asylum backlog?

‘Asylum backlog’ is an unofficial term, the definition of which has been the subject of some debate in recent years. But broadly speaking, the term is usually used to refer to the queue of asylum applications waiting to be processed by the government.

When the government talks about the asylum backlog, it’s usually referring to applications waiting for an initial decision, and that is what we’ve focused on in this article. Initial decisions include grants of refugee or humanitarian protection, other forms of leave to remain in the UK, and refusals. 

Official immigration statistics show that at the end of March 2024, there were 86,460 asylum applications awaiting an initial decision—a 35% decrease since the end of 2022. These outstanding cases related to 118,329 people, including both main applicants and their dependents.

Subsequently published provisional data shows that as of 14 April 83,154 applications were awaiting an initial decision—a decrease of 12,098 since the start of the year.

The term ‘asylum backlog’ is sometimes also used to encompass cases that have received an initial decision but are currently subject to an appeal or reconsideration, or judicial review. We’ve not included these cases in the figures in this article, and we don’t have figures for the numbers of such cases in 2023. But at the end of December 2022 there were 4,051 cases (relating to 5,342 people) pending further review.

Backlogs within a backlog?

Over the past few years there have been significant changes to the government’s asylum policy, which have led to asylum cases being considered differently depending on when applicants entered the UK.

As a result of the Nationality and Borders Act, which received Royal Assent on 28 April 2022, most asylum seekers who claimed asylum in the UK on or after 28 June 2022 (when the relevant provisions came into force), and who had previously passed through or have a connection to a different safe third country, may have their claims deemed ‘inadmissible’. That means they would not have their application considered and would have no right to appeal.

The list of what counts as a “safe third country” is set out in law and covers 31 European countries, including France, where many small boat crossings originate.

This has essentially meant the asylum backlog has been split into two groups:

  • applicants who arrived before 28 June 2022, whose claims are processed under the old asylum laws—the government has labelled this group the “legacy backlog”
  • applicants who arrived on or after this 28 June 2022—the government has labelled this group the “flow backlog”.

The ‘legacy backlog’

Over the past year or so, the government has often talked about the “asylum backlog” when it was in fact only referring to the “legacy backlog”. We’ve fact checked the Prime Minister and other ministers who have failed to make this distinction clear when talking about the asylum system.

Official immigration figures (published quarterly) show that as of 31 December 2023 most of the 98,659 “legacy backlog” cases had received an initial decision, with 2,353 cases still outstanding.

More recent provisional figures show that as of 14 April 2024 there were 2,377 of these cases still outstanding.

We wrote in January about the government’s claim to have “cleared” the “legacy backlog” (note though that the figures discussed in that fact check have since been revised).

The ‘flow backlog’ and inadmissibility

When it comes to the remaining backlog of outstanding asylum cases, the picture gets more complicated.

Changes to asylum law made over the past few years mean that even within this group—the “flow backlog”—cases are treated differently depending on exactly when people arrived.

As explained above, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 means that applicants who arrived on or after 28 June 2022 who travelled through a “safe third country”, or have a connection to one, “may” have their claims deemed inadmissible.

Oxford University’s Migration Observatory explains: “In theory, the government would attempt to remove them to that country or any other safe third country. In practice, if they could not be removed (for example, because no safe country was willing to take them back), they would eventually be admitted to the UK asylum system.”

However, the rules around inadmissibility are changing again due to the Illegal Migration Act 2023. The relevant new provisions in this legislation will mean that most asylum seekers who entered the UK irregularly on or after 20 July 2023 (for example, by small boat or in the back of a lorry), “must” have their application deemed inadmissible, meaning the Home Office will legally not be able to make a decision on their claim.

The Act also places a legal duty on the home secretary to remove these asylum seekers to a safe third country (for example, Rwanda).

At the time of publication these new provisions from the Illegal Migration Act have not yet come into force.

Another group of asylum seekers within this “flow backlog”, consisting of people who arrived on or after 7 March 2023 but before 20 July 2023, do not fall under the same “duty to remove” as those who arrived on or after 20 July 2023, but also cannot be granted leave to remain except in limited circumstances

The different pieces of legislation outlined above do not apply to unaccompanied asylum seeking children, as well as some trafficking victims. They also do not apply to asylum seekers who initially arrive in the UK legally, and later go on to claim asylum.

What does this mean for the asylum backlog?

As of 14 April 2024 there were a total of 80,777 “flow backlog” cases—over 20,000 more than the number of “flow backlog” cases in April 2023.

Of these, 7,358 were in the first group of cases being processed under provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act (those who arrived between 28 June 2022 and 6 March 2023). The number of outstanding cases in this group has been decreasing since March 2023.

A further 21,313 applications sat in the second group of cases (those who arrived between 7 March and 19 July 2023). Around 1,700 cases in this group have been processed since the end of July 2023.

Finally, there are 51,926 applications which fall into the third group (those who arrived on or after 20 July 2023). As we’ve explained, the majority of these cases will be covered by the Illegal Migration Act 2023 provisions (once they come into force), meaning they “must” be deemed inadmissible. New asylum applications will also fall into this category, which will continue to grow if claims are not processed, and while there is no removal procedure in operation (at the time of publication the government’s Rwanda policy is not operational).

Image courtesy of Alamy

Update 25 April 2024

We’ve updated this article to reflect new data published by the government.

Update 21 June 2024

We've updated this article to reflect new data published by the government.

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