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AT least 144,000 asylum seekers are to be allowed to remain in Britain in a desperate attempt to reduce a massive backlog of applications, figures revealed yesterday.

The Home Office decision means many suspected border cheats are effectively being given an amnesty from deportation.

Officials fear that many have been in the country for so long that forced removal could infringe human rights laws.

But the move ignited another storm of criticism over Labour’s soft-touch border controls last night.

Critics accused the Home Office of “incompetence” and argued that the figures confirmed that the asylum system remained in chaos.

Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green described the move as effectively “a back-door amnesty”.

Sir Andrew Green, of the think tank Migrationwatch, said: “This is an appalling outcome from ­unbelievable incompetence that allowed files to stack up in a warehouse for years.

“Nor is it the end of the matter. A lot of these people will be able to bring over their families and acquire full access to the welfare state.

“This will cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds for people whose asylum applications were almost certainly bogus.”

Officials have been working through a mass of so-called “legacy cases” for three years under an ­initiative known as the Case Resolution Programme.

In 2006, a backlog of 450,000 asylum applications came to light. Many are claimants who should have been deported as far back as the mid-1990s.

Ministers have pledged that the backlog will be cleared by 2011, although officials will also have to deal with tens of thousands of new claims every year.

Lin Homer, the chief executive of the UK Border Agency, told MPs that 197,500 of the outstanding cases had now been dealt with.

Around 63,000 had been given permission to stay, with human rights understood to be the main reason.

If the current rate of around a third of the “legacy cases” getting approval is applied to the entire backlog, at least 144,000 are likely to be allowed to stay.

Officials claimed the 144,000 figure was “speculative” but confirmed an approval rate of 32 per cent in the legacy cases.

The list includes 5,150 from Zimbabwe, 4,900 from Pakistan and 4,500 from Somalia.

Miss Homer also revealed that at least 7,000 of those on the list may never be traced.

A recent report suggested that granting an amnesty to up to a million “irregular” migrants could cost £6billion in housing costs alone. continues here

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