The Commons home affairs select committee heard on the 26 October about the “wretched conditions” for asylum applicants at Manston detention centre and the long delays in processing asylum applications. Manston’s inhumane and unsuitable conditions are a direct result of the government’s punitive priorities and neglect of the asylum system’s systemic problems. I estimate that asylum seekers arriving in the UK today could wait in excess of 11 years before their cases will be considered – at a cost of about £2mn per person.
This article explores why the delays are so long and the impact they are having on the system.
Number of asylum seekers awaiting an initial decision
At the end of June 2022 there were 116,109 asylum seekers waiting for an initial decision, 48,383 up on the previous year. Between June 2021 and June 2022, 14,706 initial asylum decisions were made, an increase of about a 1,000 on the previous year. Without a marked increase in throughput, it would take just under eight years just to clear the backlog.
But the backlog continues to grow and at a rate far beyond the capacity of the system to clear it. Only 4% of those who sought asylum in 2021 have had a decision. The other 96% (43,719) were added to the “pile”, as it is known in the Home Office. In the year up to the end of June there were 63,089 applications but just 14,706 initial decisions (including those made on the 2021 intake), meaning that the rate of initial decision to claims is less than a quarter.
If this rate continues, every year three quarters of claims, amounting to 3.2 years of delay, will be added to the “pile”. This means that if someone enters the system between June 2022 and June 2023, their case might not be heard for over 11 years.
Initial decisions can only be made as fast as ‘decisionmakers’ can make them. Decisionmakers are civil servants who are not expected to have any prior legal training or experience in asylum or immigration matters. They are trained on the job and work to extremely lengthy guidance and instructions. Many of the cases are complex. Those seeking asylum often have confusing stories, memory gaps and little by way of documentary evidence of their individual circumstances. In some cases, it may have taken many years for them to get to the UK.
Decisions must be legally sound, adhere to guidance and reflect the wider contextual and situational understanding contained in the departments ‘country notes’. Coming to a decision is a lengthy process and the accompanying paperwork has to be able to withstand the legal scrutiny of an appeal court.
Importance of good decision making
Good decision making is essential and is dependent on the quality of information collated by interviewers. Many of the delays in processing are caused by poor information gathering and initial interviews, poor advice for those seeking asylum and poor access to legal advice leading to last minute legal interventions. Successive immigration inspection reports have urged the government and Border Force to stop treating Channel crossings as an emergency requiring a short term solution and to gear up staff, facilities and responses to manage the problem for the longer term.
In October 2021 the Guardian published a piece by an asylum case worker. They said they were expected to refuse more cases than approve and had throughput targets which “led to an exhausted and demoralised workforce – one likely to make mistakes”. Short cuts lead to wrong and appealable decisions.
The decisionmaker said, “I saw letters with obviously pasted-in case law specific to entirely different countries than the claimant’s. I read incorrect references or just plain wrong arguments justifying refusals, such as citations of outdated policy documents”. “Tricky” cases were discarded if the decisionmaker was overloaded or unsure of the facts of the case (although the claimant was not advised that their case had gone to the bottom of the “pile”).
Over the past couple of years there have been improvements, in addition to improved staffing – discussed below – the country guidance has improved and, generally, decisions seem to be more robust. More people have been granted asylum and appeal rates have reduced.
A year ago, the Home Office told the home affairs select committee that the slow determination of cases was due to insufficient staffing. Mathew Rycroft, the permanent secretary, said that the wait time was over a year because “the number of people coming into the system is greater than the number of initial decisions. We have a plan to change that around…and we are seeking to reach a point where it is no longer going up by the end of this financial year and then starting to come down during the next financial year”.
He declined to tell the committee when the backlog might be eliminated.
At the time of his appearance the backlog would have taken well over a year to clear and probably considerably more in the majority of cases, but a detailed breakdown was not provided or requested by the committee. Officials told the committee that there were 600 staff working on asylum decisions and they hoped to recruit a further 400 by March of this year. Staff retention was particularly low in comparison with other parts of the Home Office.
The select committee was told on 27 October that the number of decisionmakers has increased by 584 and is now 1,073. Retention allowances have been introduced and staff losses have reduced by 30%. Currently, a decisionmaker makes 1.3 decisions per week on average. At this rate it would take over 89,300 decision making weeks to clear the backlog – or, 83 weeks per decisionmaker. A pilot project conducted in Leeds, with amended systems and processes, has raised the rate to 2.7 in that office, and there is a target to increase productivity to four decisions a week, overall.
This slow decision making is only partly due to the need for good decision making and careful analysis and report writing. Much of the delay can be attributed to poor technology and poorly designed information gathering systems and approaches. In 2021 the immigration inspectorate drew attention to the poor processing systems for asylum claims and the hopelessly outdated and clunky computer systems staff had to use, often requiring over 100 database entry points from various different systems.
Costs of the asylum system
In April of this year the Home Office estimated the system was costing £1.5bn a year with hotel accommodation costs contributing £4.7mn a day to the total. At that time there were 85,000 applicants receiving financial support at a cost of £55 per person a day or £20,000 per person a year. It is difficult to estimate how much these costs will increase over the coming years.
But, at today’s prices, if it takes seven years to process an initial claim, each claim would cost £140,000. Sabir Zazai (chief executive officer of the Scottish Refugee Council) said he met a woman in Glasgow who had been in this limbo for 14 years – at a cost of almost £2mn.
Cost to asylum seekers
Asylum seekers suffer from the delays. The accommodation in which they are required to stay is poor, often rat and damp infested. The current daily support rate for those seeking asylum is £6 a day for those living in independent accommodation and feeding themselves, and £1.24 for those in hotels where food is provided. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work, can only apply for permission after they have been in the UK for over a year, and then only in a shortage occupation.
It is impossible to live on the amount provided by the Home Office and many are dependent on the voluntary sector for their basic needs. Others, after years of waiting decide that they will ‘take their chances’ in the grey economy and there is no shortage of businesses willing to exploit them. Access to education is poor or non-existent and most cannot afford the bus fares or materials to help them integrate in the UK.
As the select committee heard on 26 October, delays in processing asylum claims have meant hotels and other accommodation fills up as soon as it is commissioned, leaving new arrivals at Manston in severely overcrowded and unsafe conditions – “wretched”, in the words of the chief inspector. People are sleeping on cardboard mattresses in marquees. There are 2,800 detainees in facilities designed for 1,000. On a very good day just 300 asylum seekers will be moved somewhere more permanent. One Afghan family with young children had spent 32 days in these conditions.
It is not just the conditions at Manston that are “wretched”. The conditions for asylum seekers in government-provided accommodation in the community is only marginally better. Lives are wasted, with people spending years in poverty and uncertainty, increasing the risk of poor mental and physical health, and exploitation.
The asylum system costs £31bn pounds a year, and not because this is necessary for its management. Home Office staff are doing all that is within their power to improve matters, and numerous inspection reports have commended their efforts. They are hampered at every turn by money being wasted on futile and cruel policies, such as sending refugees to Rwanda, while investment in people, systems, technology and processes has only reluctantly been provided. Current government policies are not only cruel and unnecessary and will fail to solve the Channel crossing problem, but they are financially unsustainable. Only a reversal of this approach can improve the situation.