Lift the Ban 

While asylum seekers are denied the right to work and face poverty or detention, Alice Arkwright finds little urgency in Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s planned review

As it currently stands, asylum seekers are prohibited from working whilst they wait for a decision on their claim. If they have been waiting over twelve months for a decision, they can apply to the Home Office for permission to work, but only for jobs listed on the government’s Shortage Occupation List. This is an extremely narrow list of highly-skilled jobs including radioactive waste manager and classical ballet dancer. As a result, most asylum seekers in the UK will never be permitted the right to work.

Many are therefore left to live off asylum support: £37.75 per person per week or just £5.39 per day to cover essential living costs. Despite government commitments that most asylum applications will be reviewed within six months, almost half of all people claiming asylum currently wait longer than this to receive a decision. In 2018, there were over 14,500 people waiting for an asylum decision and many wait years, even decades. Living off only £5.39 a day for years forces people and families into poverty, leaving them dependent on charities, food banks and donations.

The Lift the Ban coalition, a group of 80 organisations including trade unions, non-profit organisations and think tanks are campaigning for the law to be changed. They are calling for the right to work for asylum seekers after six months of submitting an asylum claim, with no limits on the kinds of work they can apply for. Diane Abbott has already indicated that Labour would support these changes.

The arguments for this seem so obvious. Lift the Ban have estimated that the UK economy could gain £42.4 million per year. This figure includes £31.6 million the government would receive in tax and national insurance contributions if half of the asylum seekers aged over 18 waiting for a decision were able to work full time on national average wage. Added to this is £10.8 million the government would save in the asylum support it would no longer need to provide. This figure doesn’t even include the benefits to the economy from increased spending power.

As well as allowing people to contribute their skills and talents, the right to work also helps people to improve their English, make friends and support networks in countries where they may have none, develop their skills and can have huge benefits for physical and mental health. Most importantly the opportunity to work could lift families out of poverty, it respects asylum seekers’ dignity and acknowledges the variety of benefits that they can bring to host countries. All these benefits also ease the process of integration into communities once asylum seekers have received their refugee status.

It also decreases the chances that workers will be forced into the informal labour market, which can expose people to serious dangers, such as modern slavery, exploitation and forced labour. Theresa May pledged in 2016 when she became prime minister that she was serious about combatting modern slavery. Allowing asylum seekers the right to work would be a clear policy change that could contribute to this, yet her government is still stalling.  

One of the key arguments against the right to work is that it would act as a pull factor and encourage economic migrants to apply for asylum in order to work. Research has widely discredited that opening up the labour market would draw people to the UK and has demonstrated that there is no correlation between the right to work and numbers of claims. In fact, due to the government’s hostile environment people are more likely to be deported whilst applying for asylum to seek work than if they remained undetected and worked illegally.

For employment opportunities to really benefit asylum seekers the right to work must also be met with supporting structures. Spain currently offers asylum seekers career guidance, support in finding work, occupational training and vocational training.

Policies can also go much further. Other countries offer the right to work one day after submitting an asylum claim. Additionally, if we are to really improve the lives of asylum seekers current and future governments must overhaul the entire system, and make vocal arguments for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. It must be a system based on dignity and humanity, which means the right to work is just one step. Further changes should include greater English language provision, increased access to mental health services, shorter waiting periods for asylum claims, better housing support, active efforts to reduce discrimination and, vitally, safe routes to the UK.

Alice Arkwright

Alice Arkwright works at the TUC. She writes in a personal capacity.