Rishi Sunak tells MPs he will clear asylum backlog by end of 2023 | Immigration and asylum

Rishi Sunak has told MPs his government will end the backlog of UK asylum claims by the end of 2023, with the number of outstanding claims at more than 140,000.

The prime minister was announcing a new set of aspirational policies designed to fix the UK’s immigration system including law changes to criminalise and then remove tens of thousands of people who claim asylum after travelling to the UK by small boat.

He said he had signed an agreement with the Albanian government that would speed up the removal of recent arrivals from the Balkan country. He also claimed again that he would restart plans to deport people seeking refuge in the UK to Rwanda – a policy that is being challenged in the courts.

He also promised to rewrite modern slavery laws – a promise that the former prime minister Theresa May warned might undermine protections for victims.

Addressing the Commons, Sunak said the government pledged to tackle the backlogs clogging up the asylum system. “I said enough is enough, and I mean it. And that means I am prepared to do what must be done. So early next year we will introduce new legislation to make unambiguously clear that if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here.

“Instead you will be detained and swiftly returned, either to your home country, or to a safe country where your asylum claim will be considered. And you will no longer be able to frustrate removal attempts with late or spurious claims or appeals.

“And once removed, you should have no right to re-entry, settlement or citizenship. And furthermore, if our reforms on Albania are challenged in the courts, we will also put them on a statutory footing to ensure the UK’s treatment of Albanian arrivals is no different to that of Germany or France.”

He outlined other new steps including a unified “small boats command” to try to stop the vessels crossing the Channel. He said the government would recruit another 700 new staff who would be deployed to tackle immigration crimes. He promised an end to the use of hotels for people seeking asylum by moving them to disused holiday parks and student accommodation.

Border Force officers would be embedded at Tirana airport under a new agreement with Albania, Sunak added.

He told MPs the government would “establish a new permanent unified small boats operational command”, bringing together “military and civilian capability and the National Crime Agency”.

He also said “extra resources will free up immigration officers to go back to enforcement which will in turn allow us to increase raids on illegal working by 50%”.

May told the Commons that people smuggling and human trafficking were “distinct” and “separate crimes” and modern slavery was a “very real and current threat”.

“Contrary to what is said by some commentators, and sadly some members of this house, people smuggling and human trafficking are distinct and separate crimes and should not be treated or spoken of as one and that modern slavery is a very real and current threat with too many people brought to this country into slavery,” she said.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said Sunak was indulging in more “unworkable gimmicks” following previous promises by other Conservative prime ministers. “Money is being wasted on the unworkable and unethical plan to deport people to Rwanda. The prime minister has promised more legislation but the last time the government legislated to tackle the broken asylum system they made it worse.

“Since the Nationality and Borders Act came into force, crossings and delays have increased. The unworkable gimmicks go on. So do the crossings. We need to bring this to an end.”

The government promised earlier this year to speed up the return of Albanians arriving on small boats. Of the 7,219 who had applied for asylum, only 50 had received a decision – fewer that 1%.

Ministers have also previously promised to speed up returns of asylum seekers to their countries of origin after their cases were processed, but they have so far returned about 800 failed asylum cases – down from 10,000 in 2010.

The number of people seeking asylum who arrive on small boats is expected to exceed 50,000 this year.

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