According to quarterly immigration statistics released last week, the asylum backlog has reached a new high of 160,919 asylum seekers awaiting an initial asylum decision, quadrupling the number awaiting an initial decision at the end of 2019. Following intense criticism for continuous unprecedented delays, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made a statement to Parliament on the government’s immigration plans in December 2022. He acknowledged that claims need to be processed “in days or weeks, not months or years” and pledged to radically re-engineer asylum processing, “with shorter guidance, fewer interviews, less paperwork and introducing specialist case workers by nationality”. The government apparently expects to “abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions” by the end of 2023 if these changes are implemented.
The Home Office launched a new streamlined asylum processing model on February 23, 2023, to expedite the process for certain cohorts of asylum seekers by allowing decision-makers to grant asylum without conducting an interview. Streamlining will only apply to claims filed prior to June 28, 2022. In other words, only for people who sought asylum before the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 went into effect.
Individuals from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria, and Yemen will be prioritised in the new process. These countries were chosen because of their high rates of protection status grant (over 95%) as a result of their current security and humanitarian situations. The guidance for Home Office staff states that this threshold, as well as the countries included, are subject to change and will be reviewed on a regular basis.
Claimants who are found to be eligible for streamlining will be sent an asylum questionnaire, which must be filled out in English and returned within 20 working days.
It is a complicated 10-page document with over 50 questions that, if not returned, may result in the asylum claim being treated as withdrawn under Immigration Rule 333C. The question states:
“You do not need to have any knowledge of the asylum system; we only need you to explain why you are claiming asylum.”
However, because the document is the foundation for granting asylum, legal advice is undoubtedly required to understand the implications of completing the form. This is especially true when the burden of proof falls on the asylum seeker.
Those who do not speak, write or understand English are advised to use online translation tools to complete the form, or to enlist the help of a friend who does understand English to explain why the applicant is claiming asylum. Charities have welcomed moves to reduce the backlog, but warn that the process must be well-thought-out, and highlight the risk of asylum-seekers losing their rights to protection due to language barriers, a lack of legal support, and the strict deadline.
According to the British Red Cross, the 20-day deadline could have “devastating consequences” for people in need of protection, and government communications with people seeking asylum frequently fall short, with translations rarely provided and forms lost in transit.
Shorter and more targeted interviews
The guidance anticipates that personal interviews will still be required on occasion and encourages the use of targeted and shorter interviews to ensure claims are considered as soon as possible. However, targeted and shorter interviews can still result in refusals if the asylum seeker is not given the opportunity to participate in a full substantive interview.
Targeted interviews will be used primarily to determine a claimant’s nationality, such as when insufficient evidence of claimed nationality is provided. These interviews typically last 30 to 60 minutes and are designed to gather additional information on the nationality required for an asylum decision. A targeted interview could result in the grant of protection status, another type of leave to remain, or refusal.
This is not the same as a short interview.
When only a few of the claimant’s core material facts require further investigation, a shorter interview may be conducted. Shorter interviews will include questions to assist decision-makers in determining the credibility of certain fundamental aspects of the claim. This could include questions about a claimant’s journey to the UK or a Convention reason for claiming asylum, such as religion. These shorter interviews can last up to two hours and can result in the grant of protection status, another type of leave to remain, or refusal.
The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, welcomed the new streamlined procedures in a statement following their announcement, noting that eliminating the requirement for substantive interviews for asylum seekers from certain countries with very high grant rates should significantly reduce the current backlog of cases awaiting decisions.
The UNHCR also emphasised the importance of asylum seekers understanding what is expected of them and having the opportunity to fully and accurately present their claims.
It is hoped that these new measures will expedite decisions for many asylum seekers who have been awaiting decisions for months, if not years. However, when a reactive measure from a department under fire is rolled out quickly, there are concerns about the possibility of injustice, particularly for a cohort navigating the system for the first time.