Rishi Sunak has been accused of “cooking the books” as thousands of asylum claims are removed from the system following his vow to clear a historic backlog by the end of this year.
More than 6,000 people have been wiped off the list without being fully assessed in just three months, for reasons such as failing to attend interviews or appointments, and not filling in new “fast-track” questionnaires.
The figures have quadrupled since the prime minister pledged in December to clear the pre-June 2022 asylum backlog. The government is now withdrawing more claims than it decides, sparking accusations the backlog is being cut “by the back door”.
Official guidance seen by The Independent states that applications can be withdrawn by the Home Office without the asylum seeker’s consent – even if it has been unable to contact them and does not know where they are, with a notification letter “served to file only”.
Once removed from the system, people are ineligible for the housing and financial support offered to destitute asylum seekers, with a Tory MP warning they can then “disappear without a trace”.
Labour accused the government of “cooking the books” to reduce backlog numbers, while charities accused ministers of leaving asylum seekers at risk of deportation and homelessness.
Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay told The Independent: “This seems to be an amnesty by the back door and yet another loophole allowing many thousands of potential asylum claimants with or without a valid claim to just disappear into the underground economy without a trace.”
The use of the tactic has rocketed since the prime minister pledged to clear the 92,000 asylum applications waiting by June 2022 by the end of this year.
In the three months before Mr Sunak made his vow, 397 asylum claims were withdrawn by Home Office officials without the applicants’ consent, but between January and March the number rocketed to 2,029.
The government made a further 4,039 asylum withdrawals in the period for other reasons, including when someone formally consented.
Only 5,800 cases were fully decided in that time, with 4,000 people granted protection and 1,800 claims refused.
A Home Office official told The Independent that failures to attend asylum interviews or report to an immigration centre were being used “a lot” to trigger withdrawals.
“This is done to basically bring the backlog down,” they added. “A lot of interviews were booked to withdraw as many claims as possible [if people didn’t turn up].”
Official figures suggest the tactic is mainly being used against Albanians, but Afghans are the next highest nationality affected, and Syrians, Iranians, Eritreans and Iraqis are also being caught in the process.
Stephen Kinnock, the shadow immigration minister, said the government had “created” the backlog itself by slowing down asylum decisions.
“The Conservative government is cooking the books and not being honest with people,” he added.
“They need to come clean on how many of these ‘withdrawn’ asylum seekers are simply getting the green light to drift off into Britain’s underground economy, never to be heard of again, and how many are being removed from the UK.”
A National Audit Office report published in June suggested the drive was intensifying further, with almost three-quarters of the asylum outcomes in April recorded as withdrawals.
It found that Albanians were being specifically targeted with the tactic, saying it was requiring them to “physically report to Home Office officials”, and then withdrawing their claim “if they do not turn up without a good reason”.
Steve Smith, chief executive of the refugee charity Care4Calais, said the government should not be clearing the backlog “through backdoor withdrawals which are leaving thousands of people with no future”.
“The way refugees engage with the asylum process hasn’t changed, so why have withdrawals quadrupled since Rishi Sunak pledged to clear his government’s own legacy backlog?” he asked.
“Behind every claim is a real person and the reality is that refugees left with no asylum claim are even more vulnerable to exploitation.”
Out of the 2,029 involuntary withdrawals in the first three months of this year, almost 1,400 were for Albanian claimants, 92 were for Afghans, 36 for Syrians and smaller numbers for nationalities including Eritrean, Iraqi, Iranian and Yemeni.
Home Office guidance states the policy targets people who “show no real interest in pursuing their claim by failing to comply with the process, failing to provide up-to-date contact details, absconding or leaving the UK without permission before a decision”.
Triggers listed for withdrawal include “failure to complete an asylum questionnaire”, “failure to attend a reporting event”, “failure to attend the substantive asylum interview” and absconding.
The guidance says claims should be removed unless asylum seekers can “provide evidence that their absence was due to circumstances beyond their control”, such as medical appointments or travel disruption.
People must be issued a formal warning and offered a new appointment before the process starts, normally following two no-shows.
But charities have raised concerns about Home Office errors seeing communications sent to old addresses, and low financial support leaving asylum seekers struggling to travel to appointments.
Asylum Aid said it was “particularly troubling” that the failure to return fast-track questionnaires was being used as a basis for withdrawal, when the forms were being sent in English, under “very short timeframes” for people who may not be able to access legal advice.
Director Alison Pickup added: “We have seen in our own caseload real problems with the Home Office’s record-keeping around the questionnaire process and there are serious concerns about the fairness of these decisions, which could result in people being sent back to countries where they are in danger without any substantive consideration of their claim or right of appeal.”
Tim Naor Hilton, the chief executive of Refugee Action, called the situation “extremely concerning”.
“It means many people will wait even longer for a decision on their claim, during which time they live in limbo on very low levels of support, with no right to work, and in terrible housing,” he added.
The Home Office said it was making “every effort” to deport people whose claims had been withdrawn, although the only operational returns agreement is with Albania.
A spokesperson added: “We are on track to clearing the ‘legacy’ asylum backlog – latest figures show a reduction of 17,000 cases, and the number of decisions made overall is up by 35 per cent.
“Our efforts to streamline processing means statistics now show an increase in the number of withdrawn claims, which occur for a number of reasons including where someone has already left the UK before their claim was considered or they choose to pursue another application for permission to stay.”