22 May 2020

For our economy and society, it’s time to lift the ban on asylum seekers working

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Last June, during World Refugee Week, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced the Government’s plans for a new resettlement scheme for refugees. The new programme, which consolidates three existing schemes into one, should soon come into operation. By all accounts, it will streamline the asylum process – making it easier to understand for those using it, and for the Government to administer.

Yet even with this simplification, the process itself will still be a long way from perfect. Having escaped persecution and peril, asylum seekers often face lengthy delays and uncertainty, which only adds to their trauma.

To make matters worse, asylum seekers can seldom legally take paid work – perhaps the single most helpful thing for rebuilding their life on arriving in a new country. Under current regulations, asylum seekers are only allowed to apply for work if they have been waiting for a decision on their claim for at least a year. In the event that an asylum seeker does get the chance to seek employment, they are limited to only taking roles which are found on the Shortage Occupation List.

As earning a living is made nigh on impossible, asylum seekers are dependent on financial support from the state, which achieves the double whammy of costing the taxpayer money while providing refugees with much less than they could earn in a minimum wage job.

The asylum process is typically neither quick nor efficient. On claims defined as straightforward, the Home Office still only ‘aims’ to make a decision within six months. Government figures show, however, that at the end of last year some 31,516 people had been waiting for longer than that for a decision on their respective claims – up from less than 19,000 in 2018.

Some of these claims will have been made on the behalf of children, but many thousands will be for working age adults. By being frozen out of the labour market, asylum seekers risk their skills getting rusty, potentially permanently limiting their future earnings. It’s a particular issue for those who could be working in rapidly moving sectors, such as IT, where the need to keep up to date with new skills and software is all the more important. 

Of course, getting people into work has economic benefits for the government, too. An employee who holds down a full-time job, even on the minimum wage, will be making National Insurance contributions and paying some income tax. With their higher levels of disposable income, they’ll also probably be buying more stuff each week, and so will pay tax through VAT and other duties – all the while creating demand for other jobs in the economy. And many of those arriving here are highly skilled, educated people who could make a big contribution to British society.

As we can’t know how many would take jobs, or for how long they’d work, and for what pay, it’s difficult to estimate what the net economic impact would be of allowing asylum seekers to start working immediately, rather than waiting a year – but there’s little doubt it would be a positive move for the UK economy.

It’s not just the economy that will benefit though. A common response to the idea of letting more refugees into the country – or, indeed, any sort of immigrant – is to claim that they won’t properly integrate into society, and that the UK is worse off as a result. Even if that were true, stopping asylum seekers working is hardly a solution. After all, what better way for newcomers to assimilate, practise their English, pick up cultural norms and all the rest than in a shop, factory or office?

Equally importantly, stopping people working legally leaves many asylum seekers with little choice but to seek cash-in-hand work. The ban therefore reinforces an informal labour market in which unscrupulous bosses can operate virtually unchecked and exploit their off-the-books workers.

Thankfully, through the changes laid out last year, the Government has already started to make good on improving the system. As we approach World Refugee Week, the Government should take the next step, and deregulate the rules on asylum seekers working while they await a decision on their claims. Lifting the ban would be a victory for economic liberalism, and human dignity. 

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Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.