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Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported today that the Home Office’s Immigration and Nationality Directorate has increased its capacity for removing failed asylum applicants but the number of people removed or returning voluntarily each month is still less than the number of unsuccessful cases (Based on the period April to December 2004). Over five years the Directorate increased the number of failed asylum applicants returning to their country of origin or to safe third countries by 35 per cent from 8,960 in 2000-01 to 12,110 excluding dependants (14,075 including dependants) in 2004-05. Today’s report highlights a number of areas where further improvements should be made, in particular the need to remove failed asylum applicants as promptly as possible.

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The National Audit Office estimates that at the end of May 2004 between 155,000 and 283,500 potentially removable failed asylum applicants may have remained in the United Kingdom, of whom around half went through the application process more than three years previously. Between 1994 and May 2004, a maximum of 363,000 applications for asylum were unsuccessful. Over the same period the Directorate reported that it had removed 79,500 failed asylum applicants. Not all of the 283,500 applicants initially recorded as unsuccessful and not removed will now be removable, for example because they have subsequently been granted leave to remain or enter (including those included under the Directorate’s October 2003 concession for families) or they are from countries which have since joined the European Union. And some failed applications will have left the United Kingdom of their own accord. At the end of May 2004, the Directorate’s database identified 155,000 failed applicants as potentially removable from the United Kingdom, but this excludes older cases yet to be removed and will also include claimants who have left of their own accord. The Directorate has no system for collecting information on their number but has started electronic security checking of passengers departing from the United Kingdom on certain routes.

The Directorate has significantly increased the amount of resources devoted to enforcement. In 2003-04 the Directorate and Her Majesty’s Prison Service spent a total of £300 million on immigration enforcement, including the removal of failed asylum applicants. This is a 60 per cent increase in cash terms on the amount spent in 2001-02. In addition an estimated £308 million was spent supporting failed asylum applicants awaiting removal from the UK in 2003-04.

Whilst failed applicants may have no interest in leaving voluntarily, the National Audit Office found only limited championing of the assisted voluntary return option amongst the Directorate’s local offices and removal teams. Since August 2004 the Directorate has been working to improve the availability of information on voluntary return through its website, its staff and others with whom asylum applicants may come into contact. Some 7 per cent of recorded returns in 2003-04 were of failed asylum applicants who had chosen to leave the country and 16 per cent were assisted voluntary returns. At around £1,100 per departure, assisted voluntary returns cost less than the average figure of £11,000 per enforced removal. Increasing the number of voluntary departures by, for example, better promoting the options available to those due for removal and by establishing better contacts with community groups, could lead to savings of nearly £10 million for every additional 1,000 asylum applicants choosing to return voluntarily.

Delays and difficulty in obtaining travel documents have slowed up the removal process. In the case of failed asylum applicants who entered the country clandestinely and do not have passports or any other identity papers, the Directorate must establish their nationality and obtain emergency travel documents from the relevant embassy. This has led to bottlenecks in the process. The Directorate’s Documentation Unit has reduced the time taken to submit applications to embassies from 17 days to an average of 7 days. The Government has been working to improve its arrangements with foreign embassies but further improvements are possible within the Directorate.

The enforced removal of failed applicants has been hindered by a lack of effective management of cases from initial application to removal. The National Audit Office found that the application, support and enforcement processes had operated as largely separate systems, leading to poor communication and coordination within the Directorate thereby reducing the prospect of quick removal of newly failed applicants. In a sample of cases turned down in 2004 only three per cent of applicants were known to have left the country within three months (21 per cent of the sample were from countries for which travel documentation is not an issue). Based on its analysis of the Directorate’s database the National Audit Office found that unsuccessful applicants removed in the period June 2003 to May 2004 had been removed on average 403 days after their appeals had been completed. At the end of 2004 the Directorate set up two pilots for active case management and removal of failed asylum applicants to achieve more rapid removals.

Detaining failed asylum applicants before their departure costs an average of £5,800 for every removal. The detention estate is used for detaining failed asylum applicants and other illegal immigrants pending removal but also for people arrested at the border, asylum applicants in the fast-track, and illegal immigrants transferred from the prison estate. On average the Directorate has achieved less than one removal per month for each bed in its detention estate, with some people detained and then released or bailed as the Directorate is unable to take their cases forward. The National Audit Office calculates that if the number of people detained for more than two months were reduced by ten per cent, and if the number released or bailed after more than 14 days were also reduced by ten per cent, some £15.5 million would be freed up for other work. The Directorate introduced a new Detention Review Board in May 2004 to re-organise the management of the detention estate and assign clear responsibility for applicants detained long-term. To meet the new target of the monthly rate of removals exceeding the number of new unsuccessful applications by the end of 2005, will require both a continuing reduction in the number of new asylum applications and a further increase in the number of removals. The Directorate has increased the capacity of its detention estate to 2,750 places by March 2005, which could enable an increase in removals of some 40 per cent of the estimated increase required to meet the new target. The Directorate will also need to increase the number of removals not requiring detention and/or increase the numbers of failed asylum applicants removed per bedspace in removal centres.

Weaknesses in the Directorate’s contracts with companies for the secure escort of failed applicants into detention and out of the country have also contributed to delays in the removal process. The Directorate has re-tendered these contracts and reduced the level of delays caused by lack of availability of escorts.

“The integrity of the asylum system depends in part on returning failed applicants to their home country in a timely fashion. The pool of failed applicants is somewhere between 155,000 and 283,500, with the number of removals and voluntary returns in 2004-05 being 12,110. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate has made progress but needs to do a better job to track and manage cases and do more to encourage failed asylum applicants to return home voluntarily. Detaining failed applicants increases the likelihood of successful removal, but it is expensive and more efficient use could be made of such facilities. Improvements in all these areas will be needed if the Immigration and Nationality Directorate is to meet its new target to achieve more removals than there are failed applicants in any given month and to start reducing the backlog.”

Sir John Bourn


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