End the Ban: Why giving asylum seekers the right to work in the UK is common sense

Tomos Owen

Imagine trying to live off £5.39 per day. It almost sounds like the basis of a TV show. Unfortunately, it is the reality that asylum seekers face in the UK. Not only this, asylum seekers in the UK currently have to have been waiting on a decision on their asylum application for an entire year before they can apply for the right to work, the right to work that is so fundamental to our everyday lives and allows us the freedom to support ourselves and our families. An asylum seeker’s ability to apply for the right to work after one year also sounds far more promising than the reality of the situation. Whilst an asylum seeker can apply for the right to work at this point, very few are actually granted this right, and even then they are restricted to only filling vacant roles that fall under the Shortage Occupation List. This list is made up of highly skilled jobs such as scientists, engineers and architects; professions that very few asylum seekers will be qualified for. The result is that the majority of those waiting on their asylum applications are forced into poverty with no means to improve their situation.  

The wait that asylum seekers are required to see through before they can work paired with the almost unattainable requirements of jobs which are then available, creates conditions that equate to a ban, even though there is not one in law. The impact of this is detrimental. In 2018, a study conducted by Asylum Matters showed that 74% of single asylum seekers were living below the poverty line. This improves slightly for an asylum seeking couple with one child, with the figure at 63%. However, it goes without saying that nothing other than a figure of 0% of asylum seekers living under the poverty line would be an acceptable figure. The prospects of reaching this are slim. This was plain to see in 2018 when the Home Office increased the weekly sum given to asylum seekers by an embarrassing 80 pence, despite this coming after a three year freeze on any increases and still falling below the inflation rate for that year. All the while MPs enjoyed a rise in their salaries of £26 per week in 2018. Unsurprisingly, asylum seekers have failed to see any further increase in their weekly allowance up to the time of writing this piece. It is frankly unconscionable that individuals that have travelled to the UK, in many cases in fear of their lives, are then forced to live in poverty because of inadequate financial provisions. 

Fair justification for the current policy surrounding asylum working rights is lacking. Up until 2002, asylum seekers were able to work in the UK after they had been waiting on the outcome of their application for only six months. Nevertheless, the right to work for asylum seekers was then removed entirely by the Labour government at the time, citing faster decision times making the right to work after six months irrelevant. This may have been the case at the time, but in the years following, waiting times have increased exponentially and the number of those now waiting more than six months on a decision is startling. The latest figures from 2019 showed that 57% of asylum seekers waited more than six months for a decision on their application, an increase of 11% from the previous year. The ability for an asylum seeker to even work at all was only reintroduced in 2005 to comply with the 2003 European Union Directive on Reception Conditions, although this reflected the 12 month wait which we still see today. The jobs asylum seekers were able to do were then restricted further in 2010 to only those on the Shortage Occupation List. It is beyond clear that the environment that facilitated the policy change on this issue in 2002 is no longer reflective of the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. The waiting times have increased and with it the number of those asylum seekers living in poverty. Though the reluctance to change tact may also have been impacted by the erroneous assumption that relaxing working rights for asylum seekers may draw more applications.

There is an assumption by some that allowing asylum seekers to work in the UK earlier would increase the numbers of individuals coming to the country for economic reasons. This is certainly the position of the UK government who confirmed as much in a survey carried out by the European Commission and the European Migration Network in 2019. Despite this, the survey showed that out of 25 Member States only one could categorically say that there had been an increase in asylum applications linked to relaxed working rights for asylum seekers. The remainder saw no correlation or had not changed their policy in this area recently. The survey also showed that in 2015, the Czech Republic decreased the time an asylum seeker had to wait before they could apply to work from 12 months to six months after the submission of their application, a change which has been advocated for in the UK. They registered no increase in asylum applications and in the year following the policy change the number applying actually decreased slightly. 

The findings of the survey also match the conclusions of the University of Warwick who completed a systematic review of 30 studies conducted in this area since 1997. They found no correlation between an asylum seeker’s access to work in any one given country and the number of applications that country received. Instead they found that there are numerous other factors which account for an asylum seeker attempting to get to a specific country. These reasons included whether they know people in the country, what language the country speaks and also, whether that country generally respects human rights law. Those arguing that the UK would be more attractive to asylum seekers if the right to work was relaxed invariably suffer from failure of empathy and forget that these are people fleeing war and violence. In many cases, asylum seekers have been forced out of their countries at short notice and have not stopped to assess where they could then find work. To suggest that this regularly happens almost implies that a large portion of those applying for asylum are not genuine. The University of Warwick found that it would be far easier for those who have no legitimate claim to work illegally, rather than bring themselves to the attention of the authorities by applying for asylum. Reporting weekly to the local council, providing fingerprints, and holding a biometric card are hardly the actions of someone who wishes to take advantage of the system.

Given that the current policy is failing, the benefits of a change must be considered. There is clearly a strong argument in the UK to revert to giving asylum seekers the right to work after six months given the increase in time it is taking to come to a decision. This would counter the issues with increased waiting times, but could equally have a benefit economically. This is clearly a route which would allow asylum seekers to avoid being pushed into poverty. Whilst asylum seekers that do find work would then be contributing to the UK economy through income tax and increased spending. Those that peddle the narrative of asylum seekers “draining resources” would do well to remember that many asylum seekers would jump at the chance to work, if only they were permitted. A change in policy to allow asylum seekers to work earlier would have to coincide with a relaxation on the types of jobs they are able to do, but there is an equally valid argument for doing so. Only months ago, the UK was suffering from a shortage of labour to such an extent that Prince Charles made a public plea to ask individuals to consider picking fruit, and when that failed, we were forced to fly workers to the UK from abroad. It is bemusing that the current policy surrounding asylum seekers is justified when this is the case, and this is only one example of a shortage of labour in certain sectors in the UK. 

There is also precedent to suggest that by giving asylum seekers the right to work they may not only fill vacant jobs, but can create jobs for the open market. This was demonstrated in Kampala, Uganda where full working rights were given to refugees. In many cases these businesses were successful, however what is most interesting is that when a study was conducted into who those businesses employed, 40% were from the local population. Further, only 1% of refugees in the same location were entirely reliant on humanitarian aid. Whilst refugees are a different group, they are directly comparable in that a refugee is only an individual who has had their asylum officially recognised. This example demonstrates that improving working rights for asylum seekers can have a clear net benefit to a country. They can begin working earlier, begin integrating into their new society, all whilst stimulating the local economy. The more you look at this issue, the clearer it is that a change is policy is simple common sense.

Despite the logic that a change of policy would be beneficial, a change does not appear to be coming any time soon. This issue is one that has been tirelessly pursued by organisations such as Refugee Action who are witness to the devastating impact that the current policy has. Up to this point that has all been in vain. It is difficult to comprehend the current position given that a small amount of research on the topic clearly suggests that the change would have no adverse effects in the UK. However, the lack of action suggests that the government is making decisions in this area based on ideology, rather than on any cost-benefit analysis. 

The government was given a clear chance to change this policy as recently as 2016 when the Immigration Act went through parliament. During this process, the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment that would have allowed asylum seekers the right to work after six months of filing their application. This is exactly what Refugee Action has been campaigning for, but the amendment was voted down by the House of Commons. This is part of a wider pattern of increasing hostility to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, a pattern which seems to be based in the flawed logic that by withholding more lenient working rights they will deter numbers coming to the country. They fail to remember that many of those are fleeing from tyrants far greater than the Home Office. No amount of hostility will deter asylum seekers coming to the UK so the government would do well to reassess and end the ban for good. If only they could look past their own prejudices. 

If you want to join the campaign to End the Ban you can do so with Refugee Action here

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