11 March 2022

Surely now it’s time to finally lift the ban on asylum seekers working

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As I write this it is estimated that 2.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine. While the Home Office has now announced that those with passports or ID cards will be able to apply for visas online and give biometric details upon arriving in the UK, this will only apply to those who are eligible under the recently announced Family Scheme.

Even for those who are eligible, the system is notoriously bureaucratic; we’ve seen stories of people who have been resident in the UK for years struggling to get over the Channel, and even the Ukrainian ambassador previously struggled to get a visa for his wife. It therefore seems entirely reasonable to suppose that some Ukrainian refugees will try to make the dangerous crossing over the Channel to seek asylum here.

If they do manage to make it over, they might expect to be able to work while they complete the arduous process of seeking refugee status. Unfortunately, if you thought Home Office bureaucracy for getting into the country was bad, when it comes to those who are already here it’s even worse.

For the first 12 months in the UK, asylum seekers cannot undertake paid employment of any kind, and are expected to live on just £39.63 a week. If their asylum application is still pending after this period, they can work – but only in jobs listed on the Government’s Shortage Occupation List. Here too they may encounter the full might of British box-ticking. The list includes players of string instruments, but only in orchestras which are members of the Association of British Orchestras, and secondary school teachers, but only if they are teaching Gaelic. Asylum seekers’ access to the labour market is therefore superficial at best.

The pointlessness of this policy can scarcely be overstated. For one, it makes it doubly difficult for new arrivals to integrate into the UK, as well as slowing down their acquisition of the language. Just as importantly – as the OECD has documented – rendering a group of people unable to work makes them vulnerable to unscrupulous, exploitative black market employers. The terrible working conditions faced by vulnerable migrants in textile factories in Leicester has been one particularly prominent example.

Just as the UK’s current position on Ukrainian refugees is less generous than our European neighbours, the 12-month work ban is also an outlier. No other country in Europe has such a long proscription; in Italy the wait is only two months, and in Sweden asylum seekers are permitted to work on arrival.

The ban is also nonsensical from an economic standpoint. New figures from Refugee Action have shown that the ban on employment will have cost the taxpayer upwards of £876 million by the end of 2022. Conversely, lifting the ban removes asylum seekers from state support and would mean that they would be able to pay taxes. The Office of National Statistics has found there is now a record 1.2 million job vacancies across all industries in the UK – it is surely common sense to allow asylum seekers to help fill these gaps while they await a decision on their asylum claim.

Fortunately, the Government now has a great opportunity to lift the ban. Last week the Lords voted to add a clause to the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill to let asylum seekers work in any sector after six months, if they are still waiting on a decision on their claim.

Given that recent figures show 62,000 people have now waited more than six months for a decision on their asylum claims, there has surely never been a better time for a change of tack. The Ukraine crisis will only exacerbate this problem, and given the bureaucratic failures we’ve already seen, it’s hard believe the Home Office is capable of tackling the existing asylum backlog.

The Government must learn the lessons of previous refugee crises, rather than allowing this new one to underline the inadequacy of the current policy –one which only makes things worse for those who have already suffered so much.

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Emily Fielder is Head of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.

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