A key Home Office target of dealing with 90% of asylum applications within six months is “unachievable”, an independent watchdog has warned.
The chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, John Vine, said the complexity and volume of cases the agency dealt with had created a backlog.
Ministers want the target met by the end of 2011 but Mr Vine said this would not happen without hiring more staff.
The agency’s chief executive Lin Homer said cases were being resolved faster.
Mr Vine’s role is to give independent scrutiny of the work of the agency.
In a report published on Friday, he said the agency would have to more than double its current work rate if it was to clear up about 200,000 outstanding cases dating back several years by a separate target of July 2011.
He said officials would need to clear 11,000 cases a month but were currently getting through fewer than 5,000.
Mr Vine said considerable progress had been made since the asylum processing target was first announced three years ago, but highlighted the fact that 30,000 cases had already taken longer than six months to resolve.
This was because either officials had not been able to make a decision or it had proved impossible to remove failed asylum-seekers.
Mr Vine said: “Some of the most vulnerable people in society who are claiming asylum, their cases are not being dealt within the six-month period, and I think that’s regrettable.
“These people are fleeing persecution from other countries and it’s the responsibility of the British government and the UK Border Agency in particular to make sure their cases are dealt with expeditiously.”
Mr Vine told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that on the whole, performance targets had helped improve the level of conclusion of cases, but some targets had created “perverse behaviour”.
He said he had made 19 recommendations which, if the agency accepted them, would help improve the situation.
Ms Homer said the agency was working on a plan to deal with claims still outstanding after six months.
She added: “The UK Border Agency is concluding asylum cases faster than ever before, with the majority concluded within six months, down from an average of 22 months in 1997.”
Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council charity, said it was in “everyone’s interests” that asylum cases were concluded quickly and fairly.
She said: “It is one thing to have targets, it is another to make them so unrealistic that not only are they not met but, crucially, they result in the wrong decision being made and an often lengthy appeals process.”
Procedures at the agency were overhauled in 2006 by Home Secretary John Reid, who had declared parts of the system “not fit for purpose”.
Charity Refugee Action said about half of its clients were backlog cases – but called the report’s conclusions short-sighted.
“It is obviously important that applications are resolved speedily,” said a spokesman.
“But it’s also vital that applications are resolved accurately. Those in need asylum are among the most vulnerable people in our society, and a wrong decision can mean a death sentence.”
Story from BBC NEWS