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Under 2 per cent of people who have entered the UK by small boat since 2018 have been removed to another country, underscoring Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s failure to deliver on his promise to tackle a large backlog in asylum claims.
More than 96,000 migrants arrived in Britain after crossing the Channel between January 2018 and June 2023. A total of 1,319, or 1.4 per cent, of these individuals were removed from the UK in that period, according to Home Office figures obtained by the Financial Times through a freedom of information request.
The findings point to one of the difficulties confronting the government as it faces pressure ahead of a probable election year over the large numbers of asylum seekers waiting for their claims to be processed. The backlog of asylum cases awaiting a decision jumped to 123,000 in October.
More than 75 per cent of asylum applications in the UK are successful, with most arrivals having a legitimate right to claim protection, according to the Refugee Council.
On Wednesday, Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft said he was unable to say how many people had been returned to a safe third country over the past three years when questioned by Conservative MP Lee Anderson.
Peter Walsh, a researcher at the Migration Observatory think-tank at Oxford university, said that since 2021 about 70,000 asylum seekers in the UK had been considered potentially “inadmissible” because they had entered “irregularly”, or without the necessary authorisation or documents required, from a safe third country.
The figures obtained by the FT showed that the number of migrants removed from Britain to the EU has dropped by a factor of nine since the UK left the bloc’s migration returns agreement in 2021. It fell from 136 people in 2020 to 14 last year, according to the data.
Under the so-called Dublin regulation, EU governments are allowed to transfer asylum seekers to other member states. Assessments in such cases place an emphasis on family ties and the country in which the claimants initially arrived.
Walsh said the removal of migrants to the EU “all but dried up after the UK chose to leave the Dublin system, which it didn’t have to do as part of Brexit”. “Dublin was the only mechanism we had for returning asylum seekers to Europe,” he added.
The Labour party has vowed to renegotiate a deal with the EU based on safe returns and family reunion if it wins the next general election.
At the same time, the government has significantly increased the number of small-boat arrivals who have been returned to their country of origin, albeit from a low starting point. Total removals from the UK have risen from 127 in 2019 to 628 this year, according to the data.
The number of people removed to Iraq increased from zero in 2019 to 83 in 2022, while those to Iran increased from two to 31 over the same period.
The total removed to Albania increased from two in 2019 to 215 in 2022. In the first half of this year, the figure reached 512 after a rapid rise in arrivals from the Balkan state last year.
The overall number of “enforced returns” from the UK, including of people in detention or found to have committed a crime, has been steadily declining during the past decade, from about 15,000 in 2013, to 4,000 in 2022.
Ministers had planned to reduce irregular migration through a deal with Rwanda to send claimants to the African country for processing but the policy was ruled unlawful by the UK Supreme Court. The government is now scrambling to pull together a new agreement with Rwanda.
The UK this month announced it had added India and Georgia to its list of “safe countries”, which enables it to deny an asylum claim and send back to those countries individuals who arrive via irregular routes.
The Home Office said that its Illegal Migration Act would allow it to go further, by ensuring that “people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly removed to their country of origin or a safe third country”.
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