Revealed: supermarket staff recruited to make ‘life and death’ asylum decisions

‘It’s a total disaster,’ says whistleblower as Home Office brings in novice workers to clear backlog

The Home Office is hiring asylum decision-makers from customer service and sales positions at McDonald’s, Tesco and Aldi as part of a recruitment drive to clear its huge backlog of asylum applications, the Observer can reveal.

The new recruits, hired through online advertising and high street recruitment agencies, have no prior experience or knowledge of the asylum system. Many are placed on rolling, temporary contracts, typically for three months. Despite being promised comprehensive training, decision-makers report being “left to fend for themselves” after two days, and having to conduct complex interviews and make “life or death” decisions.

Despite such responsibility, sources claim that staff refer to Lonely Planet guides for “potted histories” of applicants’ home countries, prioritise certain nationalities and preside over a “quantity above quality” approach.

A whistleblower with nearly two decades’ experience in asylum decision-making who is currently training new staff to carry out interviews, told the Observer: “They’re getting in far too many inexperienced people, with no understanding of the asylum system, and they just don’t have the support they need so they leave.” They added: “It’s a total disaster. They don’t know what they’re doing”.

The news comes as a new poll for the Observer reveals that the vast majority of the public – 73% – believe Britain has not “taken back control” of its borders since Brexit. According to the latest Opinium poll, only 12% believe Britain is in control of its borders, while almost half say Brexit has made Britain’s ability to manage its borders worse.

The Observer’s investigation into asylum decision makers comes after Rishi Sunak admitted to parliament last week that “not enough” asylum applications are being processed, and said the government had increased the number of “processing officials” by 80%, with another 500 to be appointed by March.

There are currently 1,090 decision makers working to clear the backlog, which now stands at more than 117,000 cases. The backlog is blamed for the significant numbers of asylum seekers being housed in hotels at a cost of more than £5m a day, and the severe overcrowding at the Manston asylum processing centre in Kent.

Home Office officials recently admitted that of the 28,526 people who crossed the Channel in small boats last year, only 1,141 – just 4% – have been processed.

A new Home Office target to treble the number of decisions made by each caseworker from 1.3 a week to four has led to some citing an intense working environment, with increased pressure to hit targets.

The whistleblower acknowledged that claims are prioritised by nationality, in particular Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, rather than the length of time a person has spent in the UK waiting for a decision. “It’s not a first come, first served system,” she said. “Some nationalities, you see them, and say: ‘That’s a documented Syrian: that’ll be easy’.”

She added: “If a journalist has asked about an individual’s case, it’ll come into the senior caseworker’s inbox and we’ll say: ‘This is high profile’, so the case gets looked at quicker.

“I’ve also had people sitting there looking up Lonely Planet for a potted history of a country because the guidance isn’t clear enough. Some have an in-depth awareness of world affairs but most don’t.”

Many long-serving caseworkers the Observer has spoken to over the past six months say the quality of interviews was higher before 2012, when asylum decision makers were downgraded from high executive officer grade to executive officer.

One Home Office staffer said: “It’s a very highly skilled job but hasn’t been given the respect it deserves. Quantity matters more than quality.”

The whistleblower added that the quality of interviews needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. “You can’t just reject without evidence – if you haven’t asked the questions, you have no basis for saying no’ The number of cases that get overturned in court speaks volumes about the quality of interviews.”

Government data shows that more than half of refusals are overturned on appeal.

Substantive interviews are arguably the most crucial part of the asylum process – a lengthy interrogation by decision makers, typically lasting four to eight hours – who then deliver their “consideration” about whether someone is granted leave to remain, given refugee status or refused protection.


Although training should include a two-week interviewing course, new recruits say they are conducting substantive interviews after shadowing a senior caseworker for just two days.

One current caseworker told the Observer: “The training is literally you will go and sit with another member of staff and watch them do it and then they will give you a try at doing a case while they watch you. Once you have shown them a couple of times, you are pretty much just left to your own devices.”

A former senior caseworker added: “If we want a fair asylum system, the responsibility has to be on the Home Office to prepare people for making life and death decisions. Caseworkers need to understand that a refusal could result in someone being removed from the UK and being killed back in their own country, or going on to take their own life.

“Was I, in reality, prepared that the decisions I was making might result in someone’s death? Or prepared to see someone seriously self-harm … or a child taking his own life? No, I don’t think so – and that’s the stuff that really keeps me up at night.”

They added that the turnover in asylum decision-making is one of the highest in any frontline operation across the Home Office with a shelf life of around two years because people become “too cynical or jaded” after that.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “Our members are doing their best to deal humanely with asylum seekers, in what has become a highly politicised environment. It’s a very stressful job, made harder by a lack of training and investment.”

Rob McNeil, deputy director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said it was one of the hardest jobs in immigration.

“Caseworkers have to apply hundreds of pages of guidance to the complex human stories they encounter, under significant time pressure,” he said. “These are life and death decisions that require skill, training and experience to make. Getting the decisions wrong has human costs for applicants and financial costs for the government.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The claims being made here are baseless. We have increased recruitment of asylum case workers by 80% since 2019 … All recruits must meet minimum civil service recruitment standards and are supported with extensive training and support by senior trainers and technical experts.

“Our processes are underpinned by a robust framework of safeguards and quality checks, ensuring that claims are properly considered, decisions are sound, and that protection is granted to those who genuinely need it.”