Report points to poor resourcing of staff and technology as major reason for Home Office struggle with asylum backlog
Home Affairs Committee: Asylum system is broken, but not due to asylum seekers crossing the Channel
19 July 2022
An important new report published yesterday by Parliament's Home Affairs Committee examines the growing trend of asylum seekers arriving in the UK after crossing the English Channel in small boats.
Explaining the purpose of the report, the Committee said: "This Report seeks to consider why there has been a sharp and apparently continuing rise in the number of small boats carrying migrants to the United Kingdom across the English Channel in the past five years. Our inquiry sought to find out what can be done to prevent such crossings, both here and in other countries including in particular in our nearest EU neighbours, what our obligations are to those who seek to reach our shores, and what can be done to prevent the illegal smuggling and trafficking of people across international borders by criminal gangs who seek only to profit from human misery."
As the report notes, asylum seekers arriving by boat represent only a tiny percentage of immigration to the UK. In 2021 there were around 1,000,000 visas issued enabling extended stays in the UK compared to 28,500 people crossing the Channel.
Despite the Government's high-profile plans to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda, the numbers arriving in the UK by boat continue to rise significantly. Indeed, the Committee finds that the migration partnership with Rwanda so far shows no evidence of deterring crossings.
The Home Affairs Committee said: "The report finds that efforts by the Government to find a single, low-cost, solution to close off this route of entry are unrealistic and will not succeed. Threats of being put on a flight to Rwanda with no chance of return to the UK have so far failed to stop people making the extremely dangerous journey across the Channel. Their motivations, and their understanding of what will happen when they arrive in the UK, are also poorly understood and insufficient to inform good policy."
Importantly, the Committee says in the report that while they agree with the Home Secretary that the asylum system is broken, it was not asylum seekers crossing the Channel who broke it. The Committee points to the fact that the Home Office's increasing struggle to cope with the backlog in asylum cases comes despite the relatively low growth in the overall number of claims.
The report explains: "The number of asylum applications to the UK remained fairly consistent between 2015 and 2020. Following 35,737 applications in 2019 numbers fell during the early months of the pandemic before rising to 48,540 applications in 2021. While this is the highest annual number since 2003, the figure for 2021 remains significantly below the previous peak, of 84,132 applications, which occurred in 2002. Increasing pressures on the asylum system are not therefore a direct consequence of increasing demand: rather, they relate to the processing of applications within the UK as Home Office asylum caseload."
The report continues to further explain: "On 2 February 2022 the Home Secretary told us that the asylum system was collapsing, which she attributed to 'the various strains, abuses, sheer numbers coming to this country'. This assessment overlooks the fact that, even after the sharp increase in Channel crossings in 2021, the numbers seeking asylum in the UK in 2021 were just over half the number who applied in 2002. Government data shows that the number of asylum cases in Home Office 'work in progress' has doubled since 2014. At 30 June 2018—the last data point before Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared 221 migrants crossing the Channel a major incident in December 2018—there were already 88,848 cases in the system."
According to the Home Affairs Committee, a significant factor in the 'collapse' is poor resourcing of staff and technology in the Asylum Operations function in the Home Office.
"When decision makers are forced to manage their workflow using spreadsheets wholly inadequate for the size and complexity of the data, it is not surprising that errors occur and that data is lost. Nor is it surprising that it becomes difficult to retain demoralised staff or that the average time to resolve a single claim is now more than 14 months. It is not surprising that, given all these circumstances, the caseload keeps getting bigger," the report states.
The Home Affairs Committee says addressing the backlog must be the Home Office's highest priority within asylum operations.
On the issue of Channel crossings, the Committee calls for increased cooperation with France, including exploring setting up UK asylum processing facilities in France, and an increase in safe and legal routes for refugees to come to the UK.
In concluding, the report Home Affairs Committee says in its report: "We recognise that this crisis has been building over many years. But this Government's response, characterised first by inattention and then by poor decision-making, has exacerbated these problems and undermined public confidence in the asylum system and in the management of the border. The issue has not been helped by the perceived reluctance of the French Government to find a solution and work much more cooperatively with UK authorities in intercepting migrants before they reach British territorial waters.
"We urge the Government to show leadership through redoubling efforts to engage and co-operate with international partners. The provision of safe and legal routes to the UK should be a key part of the Government's strategy to counter the criminal trade, and this has not yet received the attention it deserves. The Government risks undermining its own ambitions and the UK's international standing if it cannot demonstrate that proposed policies such as pushbacks, now abandoned, and offshore processing, such as the Rwanda partnership now being legally challenged, are compatible with international law and conventions."
Diana Johnson MP, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said: "It is clear that the asylum system is broken, but it is not those making Channel crossings who broke it. Policy development in this area has moved away from evidence-based, tested and cost-effective solutions reacting to the changing demands placed on it. Instead, we have a search for radical new policies that might make good headlines but do little to stem the flow of people prepared to put their lives at risk to reach the UK by any means necessary. … The UK needs an asylum system that deals with reality. It must be fair, efficient and acknowledge the UK's international obligations. It should work to remove obstacles for those likely to have a valid claim to come to the UK, whilst working with international partners to combat the criminal gangs facilitating illegal entry. Meeting this challenge will require careful planning and detailed understanding of the problems it seeks to solve. There is no quick-fix solution."