The Government’s claim to have cleared the backlog of legacy asylum applications has been widely criticised. The roommate of the asylum seeker who died on the Bibby Stockholm in December 2023 has described unbearable conditions on the barge, and two humanitarian NGOs present at an asylum centre in Essex have reported health conditions similar to those seen in Greek camps. The number of migrants who crossed the Channel decreased in 2023 but the UK’s efforts to prevent crossings have been criticised by a French court. A long-awaited Home Office report on safe and legal routes for migrants to travel to the UK does not include any proposals for new routes.

On 2 January, the UK government announced that it had achieved its objective of clearing the backlog of legacy asylum applications.  Writing on X, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that “I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That’s exactly what we’ve done. Over 112,000 cases are now cleared with a lower grant rate than last year, a key part of our plan to stop the boats.” However, the claim was immediately challenged by critics who pointed out that, by the Home Office’s own admission, of the 92,000 applications that had been made before 28 June 2002, 4500 so-called “complex” cases were still unresolved. The Chief Executive of ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, stated that it was “misleading for the government to claim that the legacy backlog has been cleared as there are thousands still waiting for a decision.” In addition to disagreements about the actual number of asylum cases that had been completed in 2023 (as opposed to simply “processed”), there was also criticism about the number of cases that had been withdrawn. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper tweeted “17,000 [cases] “withdrawn” by the Home Office but they’ve no idea where those people are.” This was echoed by Solomon who stated that “The reality is that the Home Office has lost track of too many people who have been removed from the asylum process.” The Government’s claim to have cleared the legacy backlog was subsequently checked by the independent factchecking organisation, Full Fact, which concluded that “This is misleading. The PM’s claim relates to a subsection of outstanding asylum cases called the “legacy backlog”, rather than the overall backlog of cases which still stands at almost 100,000. Most “legacy backlog” cases have been resolved but around 4,500 are still marked as awaiting an initial decision.” In addition, the Refugee Council highlighted that the so-called “flow backlog” (i.e. asylum claims that have been submitted since June 2022 but that are still awaiting an initial decision) is currently even larger than the legacy backlog. In a thread on X, they wrote that “Nearly 100,000 people are trapped in an additional backlog and facing worry and uncertainty due to the Government’s harsh new laws and the Rwanda plan”. The organisation’s Chief Policy Analyst, John Featonby, added on X that “Over half of the current asylum backlog is claims made after the Illegal Migration Act was introduced to parliament (7 March 2023). They fall into two groups, but the impact is to create a permanent backlog of people stuck in limbo.”

The BBC has reported that the Prime Minister expressed ‘significant doubt’ about the plan to send migrants to Rwanda in March 2022 when he was chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister). According to papers that were quoted by the BBC in early January, Rishi Sunak wanted to limit the numbers of asylum seekers covered by the scheme to 500 in the first year and 3000 in years two and three (down from 1500 and 5000 respectively), that he refused to fund “Greek-style reception centres” due to their cost and that he was not convinced that the policy would be a deterrent. The Prime Minister has since denied the accusation and counterargued that it was his role as chancellor to scrutinise the costs involved in the plan. Elsewhere, the opposition Labour party has announced that it will table a vote in parliament later in January to call for the release of documents relating to the cost of relocating asylum seekers to Rwanda, and all payments that have been made or are due to be made to the Rwandan government. According to the Guardian, the Shadow Home Secretary has said that “So far, costs are apparently rising to £400m of taxpayers’ money with more home secretaries than asylum seekers sent to Kigali and it is only likely to cover less than 1% of those arriving in the UK.” In addition to Labour’s planned move, the BBC reports that more than 30 MPs from the Prime Minister’s own party are planning to rebel against the government by supporting a number of amendments to the Rwanda bill when it returns to parliament for further consideration on 16 and 17 January. One of the potential rebels, former migration minister Robert Jenrick MP, told the BBC that the current version of the ‘Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Migration)’ bill was “guaranteed to fail” because it would not provide a “sustainable deterrent” to people crossing the Channel to claim asylum. He added that “appeals to deportations should only be allowed in a limited number of cases, such as for women who are pregnant and those unfit to fly.” The BBC has suggested that the government’s ability to make concessions to the rebel MPs may be limited by the demands of MPs from the more liberal wing of the Conservative party “who insist the bill cannot be tightened further without breaching international law”. It also noted that the Rwandan government had threatened to withdraw from the scheme “if it does not comply with international obligations.”

The roommate of the Albanian man who was found dead on the Bibby Stockholm barge in December 2023 has stated that the deceased lay undiscovered for up to 12 hours. Yusuf Deen Kargbo told the Guardian that he had not seen Leonard Farruku since dinner time the evening before he was found unconscious in a shower room by security staff in the early hours of 12 December. The coroner in Dorset (the county in England where the Bibby Stockholm is currently moored) was informed that Mr Farruku died as a result of hanging. Mr Kargbo added also told the Guardian that he had not received any support from the Home Office to deal with the trauma that he experienced and that “Things are very bad on the barge. The biggest fear among the asylum seekers is that the Home Office will remove the barge from its mooring and we will wake up to find we are sailing away to Rwanda. For that reason many people are frightened to go to sleep at night.” He also told the BBC that “They’re saying this (Leonard’s death) is just the beginning… They are trying to give a warning, that place is not good for them. Every day their stress is increasing, getting worse.” According to the BBC, Mr Kargbo was taken off the Bibby Stockholm and moved to a hotel five days after Mr Farruku’s death but he remains in contact with people who remain on board and who complain about “poor quality food, cold showers, unreliable Wi-Fi, and their concerns not being dealt with”. The conditions on the barge were also addressed by Nadia Whittome MP. Writing on X, the Labour MP stated that she had “met with residents of the Bibby Stockholm and asked them about the conditions they’re being forced to live in – conditions the Home Office won’t let me see. Their testimony was harrowing.”

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Doctors of the World (DOTW) have started providing primary healthcare to people seeking asylum who are being housed on the site of a former military base in Wethersfield, Essex. According to an MSF statement, it is the first time that the organisation has launched a project working with people seeking asylum in the UK. It adds that MSF and DOTW have been assessing the physical and mental health needs of the residents at RAF Wethersfield since early September. According to the Guardian, a report by the Helen Bamber Foundation and the Humans for Rights Network, based on 140 case studies, found that the men housed on the site were “suffering from a range of problems including low mood, loneliness, flashbacks, reduced appetite, weight loss, feelings of despair and difficulty sleeping, as well as a worsening in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” MSF’s Javid Abdelmoneim said the organisation had set up the clinic in a joint project with DOTW “because of the health problems seen at similar sites in Greece.” The Guardian suggested that the joint MSF-DOTW action would “cause some discomfort” for Home Secretary James Cleverly as Wethersfield is situated in his constituency.

According to UK government figures, the number of migrants who crossed the Channel in small boats fell in 2023, the first time that there has been a year-on-year decrease since records began. The BBC reported that the provisional annual total for 2023 was 29,437 – down from 45,774 in 2022. It added that the Immigration Services Union (ISU), which represents border staff, believed that the decrease was not indicative of a longer-term trend and that higher numbers could be expected in 2024. Lucy Moreton from the ISU said “The planning assumption for 2024 is that 2023 has been unusually low. There have been other confounding factors – we have had particularly high winds, we have had a larger number of days where it is less likely that we are going to get migrants in boats.” Meanwhile, France’s Court of Accounts has accused the UK of not doing enough to support French efforts to stop people from trying to cross the Channel in small boats. According to a new report which was quoted by RFI, the court found that “France has struggled to develop operational cooperation arrangements” with the UK and “the British have not been providing usable information on the departures of small boats, while giving very general, first-level information that has not been counter-checked.” It added that the Home Office had rejected the accusation on the grounds that the report was “based on out-of-date information and did not accurately reflect the current working relationship and intelligence sharing with France.”

The Home Office has finally published its long-awaited report on safe and legal routes for migrants to travel to the UK. In a written statement to the House of Commons, the Home Secretary stated that it “reaffirms the Government’s commitment to providing safe and legal routes for those most in need. Under the Illegal Migration Act, the only way to come to the UK to claim protection will be through safe and legal routes. This will take power out of the hands of criminal gangs and protect vulnerable people.” Commenting on the report, the Electronic Immigration Network summarised that it “sets out and explains the existing routes under which refugees and those seeking protection can come to the UK, including country-specific routes (for Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine), resettlement schemes, and refugee family reunion” but that ‘no new routes are proposed’. The National reminded its readers that one of the government’s own amendments to the Illegal Migration Act, which was adopted in July 2023 and which prevents anyone entering the UK irregularly from claiming asylum, required it “to publish a review of existing pathways and to specify additional safe and legal routes”. In a thread on X, the Refugee Council commented that “Safe routes for refugees in the UK are at a critical low, the worst in over a decade. Today’s report from the Home Office was an opportunity to provide safe alternatives to dangerous Channel crossings, but what they set out was woefully inadequate.” John Featonby added: “This is 40-odd pages mostly of a history and detail of existing routes. No ambition to expand or create new routes. No sorting out the problems with family reunion. No ways of giving people safer access to the asylum system.”

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