Sunak promises to clear asylum seeker backlog by end of 2023

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston has the details of the government's new measures for handling the asylum seeker backlog

The government will aim to clear the backlog of asylum claims by the end of 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mr Sunak unveiled a raft of new measures to tackle the UK's backlog and curb Channel crossings.

He told MPs "unless we act now and decisively, this will only get worse" as he announced plans to establish a new "small boats operational command" dedicated to tackling the journeys to the UK.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer dismissed the "unworkable gimmicks" set out by Mr Sunak, while the United Nations Refugee Agency described the announcement as "a troubling step".

What are some of the measures that Mr Sunak announced?

  • A new agreement has been reached with Albania to return people to the country. Mr Sunak said a third of all those arriving in small boats this year - almost 13,000 - are from the "safe, prosperous European country".

  • Border Force officers will be embedded in Tirana airport, case workers will be issued with new guidance stating Albania is safe and rules around modern slavery will be tightened.

  • Some 400 new specialists will work in a dedicated unit expediting cases, with weekly flights expected to take people back to Albania.

  • New laws will make it "unambiguously clear” that “if you enter the UK illegally you should not be able to remain here".

  • Surplus military bases, disused holiday camps and former student halls of residence will be identified to provide accommodation for at least 10,000 people to help end the "unfair and appalling" £5.5 million spent every day on hotels to house asylum seekers.

  • The number of asylum caseworkers will double and the process will be streamlined with the aim of abolishing the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year.

  • A new "small boats operational command" will bring together the military, civilian officials and the National Crime Agency (NCA) to co-ordinate intelligence, interception, processing and enforcement, using drones for reconnaissance and surveillance.

  • Parliament will set an annual quota for refugees to come to the country through safe and legal routes, in consultation with local authorities to determine capacity.

The prime minister said the public 'want to see' the UK have control of its borders, during an interview with ITV News

Speaking to ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston, Mr Sunak said the UK "must have control" of its borders and that he wants to stop "people coming here illegally".

He said: "What people want to see and what I want to deliver is control of our borders. We don't want people coming here illegally because it's not right, it's not fair, it's breaking the rules, it's jumping the queue - it undermines trust in the system.

"I want to put an end to that, and that's why our deal with Albania is important, that's why the new laws that we'll bring in early next year are important.

"And once we do have that system up and running, it's absolutely right that we have a conversation about the number of people that we can welcome here fairly and legally as we have done with Ukraine."

'It's entirely reasonable that we have a threshold that someone has to meet'

Elsewhere, the PM said it is "entirely reasonable" that under his plans a migrant making an asylum claim under modern slavery must provide hard evidence to support their case.

"And that's how we will focus our help and our support on those who actually need it. Not what's happening currently [which] is a system being exploited by those who don't really need it," he added.

"That doesn't help anybody and it puts pressure on our system. And that's what we've got to change."

However, Refugee Council Chief Executive Enver Solomon told ITV News he was "worried" the prime minister had not got the "balance right" with his newly announced measures.

Enver Solomon fears the PM wants to introduce legislation which has an 'excessive focus on being punitive' towards asylum seekers

He said: "We are worried that he hasn't got the balance right. That there's an excessive focus on being punitive on a draconian response that would mean that if you are an Afghan today taking a dangerous journey to get to the UK because there's no other way for you to reach our shores you would be deemed an illegal [and] a criminal.

"And that the prime minister wants to bring forward new laws that would say to that person 'you are not welcome in the UK'."

Meanwhile, the United Nations Refugee Agency warned that while many of the measures announced by Mr Sunak are "practical and constructive," they also mark for the UK a "troubling step away from that commendable humanitarian tradition".

In a statement, it said: "In limiting access to asylum to those arriving through 'safe, legal routes', today’s proposals go against the basic principles of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing upon which the 1951 Refugee Convention was founded.

"That framework endures as a lifesaving collective commitment between states."

How many asylum seekers are waiting for a decision on their claims?

Home Office figures from September showed there were more than 143,000 asylum seekers waiting for a decision on their claims, while nearly 100,000 had been waiting more than six months.

The overall figure was more than three times higher than it was over the same period in 2019, when 26,125 had been waiting for more than half a year.

The government is under pressure to tackle the perilous unauthorised journeys across the Channel, believed to have exceeded 43,000.

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'Enough is enough'

Mr Sunak told MPs on Tuesday: "I said 'enough is enough' - and I mean it. And that means I am prepared to do what must be done."

Describing the "complex moral dimension to illegal migration", the prime minister said the need to balance the duty to support people "in dire need" and have "genuine control of our borders" provokes "strong feelings", adding: "And so it is my view that the basis for any solution shouldn’t just be 'what works' but what is right."

Ministers have singled out Albanians as accounting for more than a third of the 33,000 migrants who crossed the Channel in the first nine months of the year.

This was a sharp increase compared with the 3% recorded in the whole of 2021.

Mr Sunak recently held his first talks with Albanian prime minister Edi Rama, during which they agreed to close "loopholes" preventing the rapid return of failed asylum seekers.

But Mr Rama has been angered by comments from Home Secretary Suella Braverman, saying she was using his citizens as scapegoats for failed immigration policies.

Mr Rama criticised her "crazy" use of language and said she was "fuelling xenophobia" after she claimed there was an “invasion” of England via the Channel.

Last month, Ms Braverman admitted the government has "failed to control our borders," as she came under pressure over the number of crossings and the conditions asylum seekers were facing after arriving in the UK.