The Home Office plans to fast track thousands of asylum cases from a handful of countries, including Syria and Yemen, as the backlog of people waiting for an initial decision climbs to almost 161,000.
Figures released on Thursday showed that 160,919 people were waiting for an initial decision on an asylum application in the UK at the end of December 2022.
That was up 60 per cent from 100,564 compared with the year before, and the highest figure since current records began in 2010.
“While the number of people claiming asylum in the UK has increased over the past couple of years, other countries have routinely received similar or higher numbers of claims," said Dr Peter Walsh, Senior Researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
"But processing has been particularly slow in the UK. There’s no single explanation for this, but reasons include low morale and high turnover among Home Office case workers, the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, and extra steps in the asylum process that the government added in early 2021.”
The announcement comes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to reduce the asylum backlog by the end of the year as he vowed to “stop the boats” crossing the English Channel.
The Home Office is faced with having about 10 months to clear 92,601 initial asylum claims that were in the system as of the end of June 2022.
Asylum seekers subject to the process — which applies to adult applicants and their child dependants but not unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18 — will not be automatically interviewed.
Instead, they will be given a 10-page questionnaire to fill out, with about 40 questions that may not all apply to them, and return within an initial 20 working days before being offered an extension.
Although campaigners welcomed efforts to reduce the backlog, they said the approach could present more “bureaucratic hurdles”.
UK coastguard responds to migrant emergency in English Channel - in pictures
Officials insisted the move was not a so-called asylum amnesty and said thorough security checks would still be carried out.
Applicants could still be called for an interview and any who do not provide the required information and evidence could have their claim rejected.
Those granted asylum will be allowed to work and would then be expected to find their own accommodation.
Tory MP Marco Longhi said he disapproved of the plan and would “request an urgent briefing from the Home Secretary”.
“On the face of it, it looks just appalling,” he told TalkTV.
He said the policy “shows how out of touch the Home Office machinery is”. But he said Home Secretary Suella Braverman “gets it” when it comes to the level of discontent in communities hosting large numbers of migrants.
He suggested that Ms Braverman “has a mountain to climb” to try to bring illegal immigration under control because overseeing the Home Office “is like pushing water uphill”.
Mr Longhi said one of the major flaws of the UK’s immigration system was the fault of former prime minister Tony Blair.
“This is a legacy of the Tony Blair years whereby pretty much anything any government department does is stitched up with legislation that is pro-immigration, pro-illegal immigration.”
Richard Tice, former MEP and current leader of the Reform Party, criticised the Home Office's plan to cut the asylum backlog, calling it a "disgraceful farce".
"Fast track email approval system without interview in open amnesty for asylum seekers," he wrote on Twitter. "No interview, no checks, then just welcome extended family."
He suggested the policy showed that Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman are in favour of "open borders".
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper welcomed the government's plan but said it should have been implemented sooner.
“It’s damning that the Home Office isn’t doing this already, given Labour has been calling for the fast tracking of cases — including for safe countries like Albania — for months and the UNHCR recommended it two years ago," she said.
“Meanwhile, the asylum backlog has skyrocketed, up by 50 per cent since Rishi Sunak promised to clear it.
"Labour has a common-sense plan to fast track cases, get return agreements in place so unsuccessful claims can be quickly and safely returned, and take much stronger action against the criminal gangs driving dangerous small boat crossings.”
Migrants at immigration processing centre in Manston - in pictures
Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon said moves to reduce the backlog were “welcome but the answer is not yet more bureaucratic hurdles and threats of applications being withdrawn”.
Mr Solomon said the process should be “well thought out”.
“As it stands, the Prime Minister will fail to meet his commitment to clear the backlog by the end of this year and if he is serious about it, there must be a more ambitious, workable, person-centred approach that sees the face behind the case.
“A priority should be accelerating the asylum claims of thousands of unaccompanied children and those of the 10,000 people who have been waiting for more than three years, as well as making quick positive decisions for those from countries like Sudan and Iran that also have very high grant rates.
"Without these steps, the record backlog is only going to continue to grow, at great human and financial cost."
Migrant crossings on the English Channel surge amid heatwave - in pictures
The latest Home Office figures, published in November, showed that more than 140,000 asylum seekers were waiting for a decision on their claim after the backlog of applications soared by more than 20,000 in three months.
In the year to September 2022, there were 143,377 asylum applications that were yet to be determined, of which 97,717 had been waiting for more than six months.
This was at least three times higher than the 45,255 applications awaiting an initial decision at the same period in 2019, when 26,125 had been waiting for more than six months.
The numbers are expected to continue to rise. The latest official data is due to be published on Thursday.