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Is it time for the UK to change its stance on asylum seekers working?

There have been many stories over the last few years about the reasons asylum seekers risk their lives crossing the Channel to come to the UK. If they are willing to do this, many people ask, then what is the point of making life more difficult for them when they arrive. Are people willing to brave sub-zero temperatures on a dingy really going to be deterred by the fact that they cannot work in the UK until they are granted asylum? This has often been the government’s explanation for why asylum seekers should be unable to work while their asylum claim is being considered.

An asylum seeker is allowed to apply for permission to work in the UK if a decision on their asylum claim has been outstanding for 12 months or more, where the delay is no fault of their own. If they are granted permission to work, they may then apply for jobs on the Shortage Occupation List.

Addressing the House of Commons last year, Tom Pursglove, then a Home Office Under Secretary, told MPs that the ban would be maintained to “reduce pull factors to the UK”. There are a number of personal reasons why an individual might come to the UK to seek asylum, but the majority of people are not entering the UK through dangerous methods because they want to work, or because they think the UK courts are a light touch, or because of the largesse of the welfare system. The forces pushing asylum seekers away from their country of origin dwarf the forces pulling them to the UK. 

The irrelevance of the work prohibition was emphasised in the Migrant Advisory Committee’s report last year. A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research referenced in the report showed no correlation between access to the labour market and choice of country to seek asylum in. The government’s ban on lawful employment may instead push asylum seekers towards informal employment and the risk of exploitation.  

No right to work for asylum seekers is a lose-lose situation. The individual is expected to wait for significant periods of time, with no job or purpose in society, before being granted asylum. Where they are offered work, the study mentioned above found that irregular migrant workers are often treated worse than national and regular migrant workers. Worse treatment included a lack of holiday, sick and maternity pay, being paid less than the national minimum wage, and being subject to abusive and threatening behaviour. Whether an asylum seeker is waiting in solitude for their asylum claim to be processed, or they take up illegal employment, it is no surprise that many feel ostracized and struggle to integrate into society (both before and after their refugee status is granted).

The UK’s approach to asylum seekers working is a particularly absolutist one. In Canada, asylum seekers have the right to work from the moment they file their asylum claim. They are simply required to apply for a work permit, and then for a social insurance number. Both of these applications can be made without a fee. In the Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship celebrated the “remarkable achievement” that Canada had welcomed the most immigrants in a single year in its history, with around 81,000 asylum seekers making a claim in 2022. He also said that newcomers increase the diversity of Canadian communities. But this warm welcome is not something the UK would consider.

Even in countries that take a less welcoming approach to refugees the work restrictions are more lenient than in the UK. In Germany, asylum seekers who are not detained in reception centres and are given permission to stay are free to work after they have lived in a particular province for three months or more.

Last year, 244,132 asylum claims were lodged in Germany. This is more than double the amount in the UK. But this is not necessarily evidence that the right to work exerts a particularly strong pull on refugees. Refugee International said in their 2022 Global Refugee Work Rights Report that the acceptance that refugees should be a part of the national labour market is a norm and is increasingly regarded as good practice.

Putting asylum seekers to work earlier could assist with some of the issues the UK is currently facing, with staff shortages causing problems across several key sectors. It could also assist the government in cutting its spending on asylum support. In 2022, £898 million was spent on supporting asylum seekers in their first year in the UK. In the last two years, most of this money has gone towards providing food and shelter. The Commons Home Affairs Committee was told that £5.6 million a day was being spent on hotels for people who arrived in the UK and have submitted an asylum claim. And an additional £1.2 million was being paid to house refugees from Afghanistan who fled in 2021 and are awaiting long-term accommodation.

Those currently housed in temporary accommodation and hotels may also find it provides them with enough financial stability to assist with finding alternative housing. The government are currently facing legal challenges for unstable and temporary accommodation for asylum seekers, and the Home Office has struggled to keep up with the demand for support and accommodation required under the Ukraine or Afghan schemes or with the general influx of asylum seekers.

Giving asylum seekers more of a substantive right to work in the UK, from an earlier point in their asylum process, will do little to increase the influx of those trying their luck crossing the Channel. What it will do is give those waiting here something to do and a way to integrate into society. A boost to their personal welfare will also mean a boost to the national economy. Rather than adding to the UK’s ever-expanding national debt, giving asylum seekers the right to work could add almost £100 million to the Treasury’s coffers each year. If moral and social reasons don’t encourage ministers to reconsider asylum seekers’ right to work, perhaps fiscal ones will. 

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Nicholas Reed Langen

Nicholas Reed Langen is a writer and commentator on the law and human rights. He is a Re:Constitution Fellow (2021/22) and the editor of the LSE Public Policy Review.