Asylum backlog hits more than 70,000 despite reduction in UK asylum applications

Published 26 August 2021 / By COMPAS Communications

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New data from the Home Office show that over 70,000 people were waiting for a decision on their initial asylum application at the end of June 2021—up 73% over the past two years despite a decline in the number of applicants, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said today. 

At 70,905, the asylum backlog was more than nine times higher than it was a decade previously, at the end of June 2011. The backlog included 3,064 citizens of Afghanistan.  

The UK received asylum applications from 37,325 people in the year ending June 2021, a 9% decrease from the previous year. These figures include asylum seekers arriving by boat. Boat arrivals have been increasing but made up a minority of asylum claims in the most recent data, which is from 2020. Among people who applied for asylum in 2018, and thus have had time to complete the asylum process in most cases, 61% were successful either at initial decision or after appeal, as of May 2020. 

The new Home Office data show refugee resettlement to the UK has not gained pace after it effectively ground to a halt during the pandemic. Only 308 refugees were resettled in Q2 2021, compared to a quarterly average of over 1,400 from 2016 to 2019. The figures do not yet capture resettlement of Afghan refugees that the government has pledged, since the collapse of the government and seizure of power by the Taliban. The majority (67%) of people resettled in Q2 2021 were Syrian.  

In Q2 2021, only 9 Afghans were resettled in the UK, and Afghans made up 4.5% of asylum seekers granted protection. Afghans have had a higher-than-average success rate in asylum cases, at 70% for the 2018 cohort of applicants (as of May 2020, excluding those who had not yet received a final decision). 

Dr Peter William Walsh from the Migration Observatory at COMPAS said:

“The scale of the asylum backlog does not reflect numbers of people applying, because asylum applications have slightly decreased. Some of the recent increases in the backlog took place during the pandemic, but actually this is a much longer-term trend. A key driver is that the share of people receiving a decision within six months has fallen dramatically over the past decade.”  

Today’s data also showed an increase in the number of applications for visas to work in the UK from EU citizens, with just over 10,750 applications in the second quarter of 2021. This is more than double the very low figure of just under 4,570 in the first quarter. However, EU citizens still made up only 12% of skilled work visa applications in Q2 2021.  

The new British National Overseas (BNOs) route for people leaving Hong Kong continued to attract substantial demand, with 30,600 applications in the second quarter of 2021, taking the total to almost 65,000. This follows a series of measures introduced in Hong Kong by the Government of China and a policy change by the UK government to allow BNOs to settle permanently in the UK after five years of residence.  

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory at COMPAS, said: “The BNO visa is generous compared to most other UK immigration routes. The 65,000 applications in the first half of the year show that the UK offer has been attractive to people looking to leave Hong Kong. While many people leaving Hong Kong are doing so because of the political situation there, this is very different from the asylum route, and people need substantial resources to afford the hefty application fees. 

“EU citizens are still not showing much interest in the post-Brexit immigration system, with low numbers of applications in the first half of the year. But it’s too early to say whether this is because of Brexit or the impacts of the pandemic.”