Plans to cut the asylum backlog by sending questionnaires to refugees instead of conducting official interviews will demand that claimants reply in English within 20 working days or risk refusal, a leaked document shows.
The Home Office will on Thursday begin sending out the 11-page document to about 12,000 people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Syria and Yemen as part of Rishi Sunak’s plans to cut the 92,000 “legacy backlog” of asylum claimants.
The move is meant to speed up the process by which asylum claims are processed so they can either be given leave to remain in the UK or subsequently removed.
But the questionnaire, seen by the Guardian, asks more than 50 complicated questions that “must be completed in English” and suggests using “online translation tools” if necessary.
It goes on to point out that a failure to return the document within 20 working days “may result in an individual’s asylum claim being withdrawn”.
The deadline has dismayed legal experts who say it places unreasonable demands on vulnerable people who will not be able to seek legal advice on time.
Questions which may have to be translated online into Pashtun or one of the nine official languages of Eritrea by claimants include: “If you do fear officials in your country, is it possible to email or telephone family members or friends in your country of origin to request [identity documents] without placing yourself or them at risk?”
Another questions asks: “Were you subject to human trafficking (the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit) or modern slavery (severe exploitation of other people for personal or commercial gain) during your journey to or after you arrived in the UK?”
Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister and author, said claimants would not be able to seek specialist advice within the 20-day deadline following cuts to legal aid and demands upon the profession.
“There is no way that 20 days is enough time to complete that form,” he said. “Because of the backlog, there is no way that there are enough lawyers to meet the demand in such a short space of time. It is just not fair.”
Caitlin Boswell, the policy and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “People fleeing desperate circumstances clearly need this government to make quicker and fairer asylum decisions, but this latest move from government is clumsy, unthinking and could put people’s safety at risk.
“No one’s right to refuge should be jeopardised because they weren’t able to fill in an unwieldy form in a language they don’t speak.”
The disclosure comes as the government braces itself for figures released on Thursday that are expected to show that the asylum backlog has hit a record number of more than 150,000.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, was criticised on Wednesday by antiracist organisations after claiming that housing asylum seekers in hotels had caused “understandable tensions” following far-right activity in Knowsley and Rotherham.
The questionnaire is being introduced after a pledge in December by the prime minister to clear the backlog of initial decisions, which stood at more than 92,000, in June this year.
Officials have identified five countries with high “grant rates” – when more than 90% of applicants are granted asylum – and plan to streamline the process by cutting out the need for substantive interviews.
Some of those who will receive the questionnaires have been waiting for 18 months in the UK for their claims to be processed.
The questionnaire says: “20-working days will be provided for claimants to return this questionnaire … Extensions can be requested if required. A failure to return the questionnaire without reasonable explanation may result in an individual’s asylum claim being withdrawn in line with the published policy on withdrawing asylum claims.”
It continues: “Questionnaires must be completed in English. If you do not speak, write or understand English, you can use online translation tools.”
Immigration sources said the document makes many complex demands upon people who speak or write little or no English. Other questions include: “Do you have any documents or other evidence to confirm your country of origin? If not, why?
“If you don’t fear officials in your country such as the government or police, can you obtain documentary evidence such as a birth certificate, national ID card, passport or driver’s licence?”
Asylum seekers are also asked if they came to the UK through a third country, and if they have been persecuted or discriminated against in their country of origin.
“What is the name of the person, group of people, or organisation that you fear? What power or influence does the person, group or organisation you fear hold in your country of origin? For example, do they hold an official position in a company or political party, or member of a state authority and why do you think they could use their position to cause you harm?”
In an interview with GB News on Wednesday, Braverman said: “It’s clear that we have an unsustainable situation in towns and cities around our country whereby, because of the overwhelming numbers of people arriving here illegally and our legal duties to accommodate them, we are now having to house them in hotels.
“And that is causing understandable tensions within communities, pressures on local resources and is frankly unsustainable.”
The government is trying to find alternative accommodation for asylum seekers, including empty holiday parks, former student halls or disused military barracks.
At prime minister’s questions, Sunak said the home secretary would make a “formal update” in the coming weeks on progress in finding alternatives to hotels. The Home Office has been approached for a comment.