Almost 6,000 asylum seekers whose claims have been withdrawn have gone missing in the UK, ministers have admitted.
The migrants “remain in the UK and the Home Office is taking steps to urgently re-establish contact with them”, the disclosure to MPs revealed.
It comes as the department was rebuked by the statistics watchdog after the Government was accused of lying about meeting a target to clear part of the asylum backlog, with the body’s boss warning this could affect “public trust”.
The Home Office confirmed the figures after the Commons Home Affairs Committee demanded answers when a senior official last year told members the department did not know the whereabouts of more than 17,000 asylum seekers whose claims had been withdrawn.
Labour said the news was “yet more evidence of the shocking mismanagement and chaos” in the asylum system.
In the letter to committee chairwoman Dame Diana Johnson, illegal migration minister Michael Tomlison and legal migration minister Tom Pursglove said it was “erroneous to say that the Home Office has lost the 17,316 cases that have been withdrawn over the 12 months to 30 September 2023”.
They said there were a “variety of reasons” why this decision could be made and that the majority (68%) have either “left the UK already”, submitted a fresh asylum claim or steps were being taken to “secure their removal from the UK.”
But the ministers confirmed 5,598 (32%) of those asylum seekers “remain in the UK and the Home Office is taking steps to urgently re-establish contact with them”, adding: “When we withdraw a claim, and if someone has no other permission to stay in the UK; funding and support stops and someone becomes liable for law enforcement activity to be removed from the UK.
“If these individuals were to make further submissions, caseworkers may consider whether their previous actions are damaging to their credibility.”
Some 5,931 (35%) are still in the UK and are in contact with the Home Office with their cases “now being managed by various teams across the Home Office including but not exclusively, Immigration Enforcement, appeals and litigation teams and further submissions”.
The letter said 3,144 (18%) of migrants who had their case withdrawn are no longer in the UK and have “no reason to have a continuing asylum claim”.
The remaining 2,643 asylum seekers (15%) are still in the UK and, in the wake of the department’s initial decision to withdraw their claim, have “re-engaged with the Home Office and have been granted some form of lawful immigration status”.
The numbers give an indication of how many asylum cases may have returned to the backlog after initially being recorded as withdrawn.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “This is a staggering admission that the Home Office has lost almost 6,000 asylum seekers and has no idea where they are.
“The fact that thousands of people have been allowed to effectively disappear into the underground economy or left vulnerable to exploitation by criminal gangs is yet more evidence of the shocking mismanagement and chaos in the Tory asylum system.
“Time and again ministers are spending their time on gimmicks rather than getting a grip.”
Asked how the Government expects to find the asylum seekers who had disappeared after having their claims withdrawn, Mr Sunak stressed at a press conference on Thursday that the “vast majority” of the 17,000 have “already been removed or are in the process of moving on or have made another claim”, adding: “So that’s what’s going on there.”
If people are not reporting back to the Home Office immigration enforcement officers should “absolutely do everything that they can to identify these people, detain them and send them back”, he said.
The Prime Minister previously pledged to “abolish” a portion of older asylum applications awaiting an initial decision, by the end of last year, tasking the Home Office with tackling 92,601 so-called “legacy” claims made before the end of June 2022.
But figures showed 4,537 applications were still outstanding as of December 28.
Permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft and his interim second-in-command Simon Ridley faced questions in November about the asylum backlog amid the race to reach Rishi Sunak’s target.
MPs highlighted how the number of applications withdrawn had increased substantially in the run up to the deadline and asked the whereabouts of the 17,316 applicants, to which Mr Ridley replied: “In most cases, I don’t know where those people are.”
He told the committee a claim was withdrawn when asylum seekers did not turn up for interviews or complete questionnaires and were “not engaging with the system that leads to a decision”.
Other reasons included when someone had already left the UK before their claim was considered or if they chose to pursue another application for permission to stay in the country, according to the Home Office.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “Every effort is taken to locate and remove individuals who have no right to be here and there’s a dedicated unit to trace and locate people.”
In the letter, ministers said many migrants who are out of contact with the department “may voluntarily re-engage” or decide to leave the UK, while others may “come to light as a result of an encounter with the police, or during other enforcement activity such as an illegal working raid”.
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