Blog post by Holly Grey (Young Visitor Engagement Lead) and Claire Garrett (CEO) at The Habour Project

In February 2023, the UK Home Office announced it would be sending a questionnaire to around 12,000 people in the asylum system, instead of conducting interviews to determine their asylum claims. The questionnaires were to be sent to people from Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Eritrea and Yemen who claimed asylum before 28th June 2022, referred to by the Home Office as part of the ‘legacy caseload’. Each questionnaire must be returned in English within 20 working days. The purpose of the questionnaire (rather than a face-to-face interview) was said to be an attempt to clear the asylum backlog, which currently stands at over 160,000 people who are still waiting for an initial decision.

The announcement offers an alternative process to determining refugee status in the UK and it is worth looking at how such changes have impacted people in the asylum system in practice. Such insights are being captured through the work of The Harbour Project, a charity based in Swindon supporting both people seeking asylum and those recognised as having refugee status. A core piece of Harbour’s work includes help and advice, and that which concerns the new asylum questionnaire has taken priority since the announcement. As the Office of Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) has determined that assistance in completing the asylum questionnaire may only be performed by a regulated legal advisor, Harbour has predominantly helped people to liaise with their solicitor or to gain legal representation in the first instance.

As of April 2023, Harbour has recorded a total of 52 people who have received the questionnaire, either directly or through their solicitor, and 3 people who are still waiting for their copy. To date, Harbour has yet to be informed of any outcome in response to submission of completed questionnaires. For those who have received their questionnaire, mixed emotions have followed.

Many people have experienced or are still experiencing struggles to contact their solicitor, leading to feelings of worry and stress. These feelings are exacerbated further by the disparity in the timing of the questionnaires being sent to asylum applicants, with some on edge waiting for their copy whilst knowing that others have already received and completed theirs.

Conversely, others have experienced a sense of relief once they have completed their questionnaire with their solicitor in a timely manner:

‘His smile has been beaming since he received his questionnaire’

Harbour Project staff member

The time in which the questionnaire must be returned can be extended by 10 days by an immigration solicitor. Harbour has noticed that this extension has been difficult for some to understand, with nervousness around missing a Home Office deadline, and people regularly asking for help to bring their appointments with solicitors forward. The extension has created additional anxiety as people are very aware that missing the due date could lead to their asylum claim being closed.

Harbour has also recorded some of the knock-on impacts of the questionnaire for those who are not from an eligible country. These include solicitors cancelling appointments with many of these people, as providing assistance for questionnaires has taken priority due to the short deadline for submission. So far, Harbour has documented 21 individuals whose upcoming appointments with solicitors have been cancelled, including 3 people whose referrals for legal representation have been declined.

In recent months, Harbour has observed that finding legal representation for persons claiming asylum has become increasingly difficult, with the announcement of the questionnaire only adding to this. Many pre-existing appointments which have taken months to organise have been cancelled at very short notice. As the number of cancelled appointments continues to rise, Harbour has faced difficulty in knowing where to direct people for legal representation. When appointments with solicitors are cancelled, people turn to Harbour and ask: ‘What can I do now?’

In a system that is already overloaded, the announcement of the asylum questionnaire has arguably created more administrative tasks, sometimes referred to by Harbour as the ‘invisible workload’ that accompanies the UK asylum system, and which is often picked up by the charity sector. Examples of this ‘invisible work’ include liaising directly with solicitors to organise (and re-organise) appointments and providing quiet spaces and internet access for virtual meetings to take place.

It is also imperative to emphasise the human impact of these ‘invisible’ tasks, especially at times of legislative change. The announcement of the questionnaire has led to many of the people Harbour supports feeling unsettled, confused and struggling to differentiate or identify what is important to their claim. Therefore, whilst the questionnaire has increased Harbour’s workload, it has also increased the surrounding noise and anxiety for these people, leaving the charity to make difficult decisions about when and how often to contact solicitors and whose appointments are prioritised.

With the questionnaires so far only being provided to people from specific countries, it will be interesting to see whether this streamlined approach will become standard practice and replace interviews. Harbour has long championed the need for quick decision-making, and it is encouraging to see those people who feel a sense of relief once completing their questionnaire. That being said, Harbour believes that any changes to the process must also be accompanied by increased capacity in the legal aid system. For a majority of people accessing Harbour’s services (both from those eligible for questionnaires and not), availability of legal immigration advice remains a major constraint in Harbour’s confidence that the Home Office can make faster, better decisions and to give people a fair outcome from their asylum claim.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.