Home Office does not know whereabouts of 17,000 asylum seekers, MPs told

Credit: PA

A senior Home Office official has told MPs that the department does not know the whereabouts of more than 17,000 asylum seekers whose claims have been withdrawn.

Permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft faced questions from the Home Affairs Select Committee today about the asylum backlog after the prime minister set a target to clear some older cases by the end of the year.

He and his interim second in command Simon Ridley were asked about figures published on Thursday showing 17,316 asylum applications were withdrawn in the year to September - more than four times the number for the previous year.

Questioning the officials, committee member Tim Loughton asked: "Isn't it strange that conveniently, when faced with a very stiff target, there has been a three-fold increase (in withdrawals) for undetermined reasons, people magically not going forward with their claims, and where are those people?"

Mr Ridley replied: "In most cases, I don't know where those people are."

Asked if they had gone home, Mr Ridley said: "I don't know."

Pressed again, Mr Loughton said: "So you have no idea where those 17,316 people are?"

Mr Ridley replied: "I don't think we know where all those people are, no."

He told the committee that a claim was withdrawn when asylum seekers did not turn up for interviews or complete questionnaires and were "not engaging with the system that leads to a decision".

Other reasons included when someone had already left the UK before their claim was considered or if they chose to pursue another application for permission to stay in the country.

Mr Ridley could not confirm whether the numbers being quoted were accurate.

This prompted committee chairman Dame Diana Johnson to ask: "Why don't you have the figures for withdrawals, why are you not able to confirm what Tim Loughton just said?"

Mr Ridley replied: "I just haven't got the precise number in front of me."

The "legacy" backlog of asylum applications stood at 33,253 as of October 29, down nearly a half (47%) from 62,157 on July 30.

To meet the target, around 16,630 applications would need to be cleared per month before the end of the year.

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