Sunak says UK making progress against ‘small boat’ migration, clearing backlog

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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his government has slashed the number of people arriving in Britain without permission and eliminated a historical backlog in processing asylum cases as he seeks to show voters that the Conservative administration is making progress in bearing down on immigration.

The government last year processed 112,000 asylum claims and removed 24,000 people from the UK, according to a Home Office statement late on Monday. Data also showed the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats dropped 36 percent last year, the first decline in at least five years — though still the second highest annual total.

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“I am determined to end the burden of illegal migration on the Brit-ish people,” Sunak said in the statement. “We are saving the tax-payer millions of pounds in expensive hotel costs, reducing the strain on public services.”

Speaking to broadcasters on Tuesday morning, Home Secretary James Cleverly said the government had “cleared the “legacy backlog of some 92,000 asylum applications recorded before June 2022.”

However, the Home Office revealed there are more than 98,000 asylum applications still awaiting a decision, largely consisting of claims made since June 2022 — but also including 4,500 of the more “complex earlier cases,” where officials are seeking further information. Over 50,000 asylum seekers are being housed in hotels, it said.

Sunak’s pledges to “stop the boats” crossing the English Channel from France and clear the asylum backlog will be major issues in an election widely expected to be held in 2024. The case backlog has been costing taxpayers £8 million ($10.2 million) a day to pay for housing people in hotels, detention centers, and even a barge while they await decisions.

But the progress hailed by Sunak may be short-lived. An official from the Immigration Services Union warned on Monday that “higher numbers of migrants are expected in 2024,” as last year’s crossings were likely affected by high winds over the Channel in December. There have been arrivals since the middle of the month.

“We have also had much larger boats, more seaworthy boats, so the planning assumption is that this is a glitch,” Lucy Moreton, a professional officer at the union, told BBC Radio. “Will we see the peak that we saw in 2022? Maybe not, but certainly more than we have seen in the last year.”

Cleverly insisted on Monday that the weather was not a factor in last year’s lower rate of arrivals, saying the number of good sailing days in 2023 was similar to the previous year.

In total, Home Office data showed more than 29,400 people arrived in the UK in small boats last year, down from the record of more than 45,700 in 2022. Sunak is under fire from members of his own Conservative Party for allowing migration to soar — via both legal and irregular routes into the country.

Conservatives have said immigration was a key factor in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, and that better ability to control Britain’s borders is a key benefit of the decision to leave the European Union. One of the Tories’ key election pledges in 2019 was to reduce net migration. Instead, it soared to a record 745,000 last year, although a vast majority came through legal routes.

The government sees clearing the backlog of asylum cases as well as sending to Rwanda those who arrive in small boats as essential to reducing the UK’s appeal to migrants.

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About 30,000 migrants crossed channel to UK in 2023: Data

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