What has been announced?
On 23 February 2023 the Home Office announced new streamlining plans to cut its asylum backlog of ‘legacy’ claims – 92,000 people who asked for protection in the UK before 28 June 2022, when certain provisions in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 came into force. As we understand it, 12,000 people in the backlog who are all originally from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen have been sent a complex 10-page document which they now need to read and complete in English before turning to the Home Office within 20 days. Asylum claims from people of these nationalities currently have a grant rate in the UK of over 95%. For people who are able to complete the form, return it in time and have their information accepted, this streamlining exercise could be their way out of the Home Office’s backlog by being granted asylum without further interview. However, failure to return the form could result in the Home Office treating people as having withdrawn their asylum claim.
Impact on people in the North West
At Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) we support people claiming asylum across the North West – people from all five targeted nationalities are among our clients and are on our referrals waiting list. For years we have stood alongside people with lived experience in highlighting the misery caused in our communities by the Home Office’s mismanagement of the asylum system. We recognise that in the North West the announced plans could mean thousands of people – who have fled war and persecution only to have been warehoused in the UK’s asylum system – are finally able to get on with the next stage of their lives.
However, by rolling out a scheme at pace (to keep up with a prime ministerial promise to clear the backlog by the end of 2023), seemingly without consulting legal representatives or local authorities, and ignoring the obvious solution (to automatically grant refugee status to nationalities with very high grant rates), we fear the Home Office’s plans are high risk. And as the history of immigration control repeatedly shows, it is those with everything to lose who end up falling between the cracks of new announcements, relying on community support and local services to pick up the pieces while the government agenda moves on.
Shortage of legal advice
We are extremely concerned that yet again Home Office’s plans fail to understand the context in which they operate – particularly for people in the North West. While there is a shortage of free legal immigration advice and representation across the UK, recent research showed the North West is the most affected region. The shortage of legal advice in the North West is so acute that we have over 250 unaccompanied children waiting to be allocated a legal representative at GMIAU – it is unprecedented. And yet the Home Office’s streamlining plan relies on 12,000 people (thousands of whom are in the North West) being able to access legal advice to complete a form within 20 days. Simply put, there are not enough immigration legal aid representatives to assist that number of people within these short timeframes, and it is illegal for people who are not regulated by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner to provide immigration advice. It is therefore likely that a significant number of people receiving the streamlining questionnaire will be unrepresented through an asylum process that needs legal representation.
And despite the lessons the Home Office purports to have learnt from the Windrush scandal, these plans show no sign of understanding the people and communities the Home Office is supposed to serve. The streamlining process relies on an English-only form with 50 complex questions. For whose benefit has this process been designed – the Home Office official who can tick that the questionnaire has been sent out? Or the Afghan woman who fled the Taliban 18 months ago and has been stuck in the four walls of her hotel room ever since, frantic about relatives left behind in Afghanistan and unable to get a response from the Home Office about her asylum claim in the UK? As it stands, the format of the questionnaire is likely to elicit responses that don’t meet the needs of either the people completing it, or the Home Office decision maker. Particularly given the shortage of legal advice, Home Office suggestions that people use online translation sites and ask friends for help are dangerous.
The Home Office plans also raise more questions than answers about the asylum system in our region:
- For people who are sent the questionnaire but are not able to return it within the timeframe – because they don’t understand it, don’t receive it at their current address or because they are too scared
- For people who complete the questionnaire and are told further information is required to decide their claim
- For the many people in the asylum backlog who are not in the five targeted nationalities– including from countries with high grant rates like Sudan or Iran
- For separated children seeking asylum who are under the care of local authorities in the North West. There are no public plans to tackle the suffering caused by the delays that we know have created safeguarding risks to children, some of whom continue to be at risk of self-harm, suicide and exploitation. We currently support over 120 children who are in the asylum backlog, including from the five targeted nationalities.
- For local authorities trying to understand the new plans and ensure an appropriate response for people affected. This will include having to support the housing and homelessness needs that arise when large numbers of people are granted refugee status or have their asylum claim withdrawn at the same time
At GMIAU we will continue to work with people with lived experience, with the voluntary sector and local authorities to push the Home Office to make compassionate, sensible, common-sense decisions to urgently clear the asylum backlog in a way that works for individuals, families and communities in the North West. Unfortunately, by acting in splendid isolation the Home Office has again left services scrambling and people unsure of what they should do to protect their futures.
We are urging local leaders to call on the government to make sure that
- People do not have their asylum claim withdrawn if the streamlining questionnaire is not completed within 20 days
- The streamlining questionnaire is simplified and translated, and that there is a Home Office advice guide to support people to complete it. This should include a pro forma for people who do not have legal representation and cannot complete the questionnaire, to inform the Home Office that they require either an immediate grant or an interview.
- Urgent action is taken to clear the Home Office backlog of children’s asylum claims, making sure that the best interests of the child are at the heart of any decisions
- Future plans to clear the Home Office backlog – including for those nationalities not currently targeted – involve consultation with communities and local services
- There is a long term commitment to sufficiently fund legal aid so that people in the North West do not face the largest deficit between supply and demand in the country
If you have received a Home Office asylum streamlining questionnaire, you are in the North West and you do not have a legal representative, please contact GMIAU by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org clearly stating that you have received the questionnaire and the date on the Home Office letter that came with it. We will respond to your enquiry, but we cannot guarantee that we will have capacity to help you with completing the questionnaire. If you do have a legal representative, we recommend that you contact them immediately for support in completing the questionnaire.