UK backlog of asylum applications hits record high

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain's backlog of asylum applications awaiting a decision hit a record high in the year to June and the number of those applying was the highest in two decades, according to official figures published on Thursday, in a blow to the government.

The Home Office, or interior ministry, said 78,768 asylum applications were made by people who arrived in the country illegally in the 12 months to June, up 19% on the previous year.

The backlog of asylum applications was just over 134,000, or 175,457 once dependents are included, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who in December pledged to clear the initial backlog of cases by the end of this year. Around 80% of those have been waiting more than six months.

Sunak has made cracking down on illegal migration a priority before a national election expected next year, pitching his Conservatives as being tougher on the issue than the opposition Labour Party, which enjoys a strong lead in opinion polls.

Seeking to deter people from arriving in Britain, the government is moving migrants onto disused military sites and barges and intends to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, although that plan has been bogged down in the courts.

"This is a disastrous record for the Prime Minister and Home Secretary," said Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s immigration spokesperson.

"With this level of mismanagement, there is very little prospect of reducing the eye-wateringly high bill for hotel rooms for all those left in limbo, currently costing the British taxpayer 6 million pounds a day."

The government said in the year to June there were 23,702 initial decisions made on asylum applications, up 61% on the previous year. Of those, 71% were grants of refugee status, humanitarian protection or alternative forms of leave.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Alistair SmoutEditing by Elizabeth Piper and Mark Potter)