14 December 2022

A firm target on asylum is welcome, but ministers have an awful lot of work to do


In a policy area all too often characterised by vague blandishments, Rishi Sunak’s introduction of a concrete, testable target to deal with the backlog of asylum claims is a welcome development. 

With pressure building on the Home Office to get to grips with the Channel crossings, the PM has declared that the small-boats crisis on the south coast is a priority for his premiership. To that end, a dedicated unit of 400 specialists will be set up to handle asylum claims from Albanian citizens, who represent a significant chunk of those entering the UK via the English Channel. Ministers have accused some of those same migrants of exploiting the system – particularly the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, to get around immigration rules. 

In Parliament yesterday, Sunak said that the Government expects to abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year. An official spokesman later said this pledge only related to claims made before 28 June this year – when the Nationality and Borders Act came into force. This currently consists of 92,601 initial asylum claims.

Other pledges include 700 new staff for a new unit – the Small Boats Operational Command – to monitor small boats crossing the Channel. Along with a commitment to double the number of asylum caseworkers who assess claims, more staff and funding has been promised for the National Crime Agency (NCA) to tackle organised immigration-related crime in Europe. There is certainly room for the NCA to deepen its co-operation with its French counterparts and pool their resources to dismantle people-smuggling networks which have taken root in parts of northern France and the UK. 

There are also plans for Parliament to set an annual quota for refugees relocated to the UK, with new laws – to be introduced next year – to make ‘unambiguously clear’ that if one enters the UK illegally, that person should not be able to remain here. This mirrors one of the many recommendations in a recent Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) report which called for a statutory cap – no more than 20,000 per year – on the numbers arriving to Britain through resettlement routes.

With an increasing number of Conservative backbench MPs expressing their displeasure at Channel-crossing migrants being rehomed in hotels within their own constituencies, Sunak has also pledged to phase out the use of hotels for asylum seekers – shifting the focus to former student halls, disused holiday camps and surplus military bases and airfields. 

The creation of new small-boats monitoring unit, expansion of asylum-claim caseworkers and planned increase in the capacity of the NCA, are all important steps in the right direction. The intention to foster a more streamlined asylum system with annual quotas is sensible – especially from the perspective of integrating newcomers whose countries of origin may have little in common with the UK. Facilitating civic integration is far from being a straightforward process – an onerous task that poorer local authorities disproportionately bear the brunt of carrying out. This is a reality that is all too often ignored by outraged liberal-left think-tankers, ‘progressive’ politicians and human rights lawyers who repeatedly talk about ‘safe and legal routes’ without offering any real solutions.

Britain is a generous country, but we cannot shoulder the burden of the world’s hardships on our own – hard-headed decisions over who should be prioritised under a tightened asylum system are necessary, not least because of the fragile to non-existent public confidence in the system.

But for all that the new target and measures announced by Sunak are welcome, there are some obvious questions about how workable some of this is. Will there be enough staff, for instance, to clear the backlog? Sunak has sought to allay such concerns by arguing that productivity will be trebled by removing paperwork and streamlining asylum interviews, but there remains significant bureaucratic hurdles. What’s more, speeding up processing risks poorer decisions and more successful appeals – which is probably not what the Government wants at all. Nor can we simply magic up new staff: recruiting and training will take time and resources.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman had already announced an increase of 500 caseworkers by March next year but accepted that a 46% attrition rate meant this would only increase the total by around 300 to 1,300 in total. As well as there being heightened risks, it is possible that the Government falls short of its laudable aim of dealing with the backlog. Ambition is all well and good, but it has to be matched by a plan that will work on the ground.

And while a concrete target for dealing with the situation in the Channel is welcome, Sunak has also made a potential rod for his own back – if the backlog isn’t gone by the next general election, people will surely point the finger.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert in social cohesion and institutional trust.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.