UK’s Sunak vows to clear asylum backlog, return Albanians

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged Tuesday to clear a backlog of asylum-seeker applications as he announced new measures aimed at curbing the number of migrants reaching the U.K. by crossing the English Channel on small boats.

Sunak, who has faced mounting pressure to limit the growing numbers of migrants arriving by small boats, said also he planned to introduce new legislation early next year to ensure people who arrive illegally cannot remain in the country.

The prime minister said he was adding hundreds of workers to process asylum claims and to clear the backlog, estimated at more than 143,000 pending applications, by the end of 2023. The extra staff will also focus on the swift removal of Albanian migrants who have arrived via the Channel in increasing numbers, Sunak said.

More than 10,000 Albanians have arrived by that route to seek asylum this year, making up nearly a fourth of the record 44,000 people who made the dangerous journey across the busy waterway on small boats and made it to the U.K.

Britain recorded the arrival of only a few dozen Albanian asylum-seekers in 2020. British officials have said the large increase may be due to increased organization by Albanian criminals working in northern France.

Sunak and others have insisted that Albania is a “fundamentally safe country” and that most asylum claims from its citizens are unfounded. The country in the Western Balkans is seeking European Union membership.

“Over the coming months, thousands of Albanians will be returned home, and we will keep going with weekly flights until all the Albanians in our backlog have been removed,” Sunak told Parliament.

He said Britain received formal assurances from Albania’s government that “they will protect genuine victims and people at risk of re-trafficking, allowing us to detain and return people to Albania with confidence.”

The British government’s focus on Albanian migrants recently angered Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who said the U.K. should “stop discriminating” against people from his country to excuse its own migration policy failures.

Sunak added that new laws would be introduced next year to ensure only those entering the U.K. through “safe and legal” routes have the right to claim asylum.

That drew criticism from the U.N. refugee agency, which said the plans would “undermine the global refugee system at large” and violate international refugee law.

“In limiting access to asylum to those arriving through ‘safe, legal routes’, today’s proposals go against the basic principles of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing upon which the 1951 Refugee Convention was founded.,” the UNHCR said in a statement.

Sunak’s approach “would close down access to asylum in the U.K. for all but a few,” the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, said. “This would likely result in refugees having no means to establish their status and place them at risk of forced return to unsafe countries, in breach of the Refugee Convention.”

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