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Give Asylum Seekers the Right to Work

Author: Christopher Gooding

Editors: Siddharth G. Khare and Soline Germond

Image 1: Give Asylum Seekers the Right to Work

One of Rishi Sunak’s five biggest aims for this year is tackling illegal immigration. A problem that has repeatedly befuddled successive Tory governments and Home Office bureaucrats for the best part of a decade. Yet, as No.10 and the Home Office target their efforts at getting a grip on channel migrant crossings (the so-called ‘invasion of our Southern Coast’), a key policy proposal continues to be shunned by Home Office officials – giving asylum seekers the right to work.

As it stands, asylum seekers have no general right to work while they await an asylum application decision – and even after 12 months of waiting, they are only allowed to apply for permission to work on jobs listed on the UK shortage occupation list.

The key to managing immigration, and its potential associated problems, is in recognising that it is a two-sided problem. On the one side is the problem of how you manage the influx of immigrants and asylum seekers: too much and you threaten to overwhelm the already overstretched public services and the welfare state; too little and you fail to inspire growth and fulfil domestic labour demands. This external side of the immigration issue is where most of the government’s focus has been and is the target of Rishi’s New Year’s plan to ‘pass new laws to stop small boats'.

However, on the other side is the problem of how you treat people once they have been granted entry pending an asylum decision. Currently, the number of people awaiting a decision exceeds 140,000, with over 98,000 of these having already waited more than six months. The result is tens of thousands of asylum seekers with nothing much to do other than eat, sleep, and spend their meagre government support allowance of £8.24 a week. All the while being housed in local hotels at an estimated cost to the tax-payer of £5.5M a day.

The case for giving asylum seekers a right to work is therefore both a humanitarian and an economic one. Removing the general ban on asylum seekers seeking work would allow them both to help themselves – employment would give them meaningful day-to-day activity and help them alleviate their acute poverty – while also enabling them to help others as the burden to the taxpayer is reduced and the economy grows larger.

The economic argument becomes even stronger when one considers the current inflationary pressures caused by the UK’s extremely tight labour market. The UK labour force has declined by 473,000 since the start of the pandemic. In tandem, UK vacancies have reached record highs – and now stand at 1.2 million after a slight decrease towards the end of last year. The combination of robust labour demand and decreased supply is one reason why the Bank of England continues to remain hawkish about the prospect of persistent inflation and the need for further monetary tightening. There is a significant potential to ease labour shortages by granting asylum seekers the right to work. As well as tackling the perceived costs of illegal immigration, allowing asylum seekers to work would also tackle another issue arising from immigration – that of integration. For many asylum seekers, housed in local hotels with only other asylum seekers from many different parts of the globe, opportunities to interact constructively with local communities are sparse. Getting people working would enable asylum seekers to learn and understand more about the UK, its various cultural and societal norms, and most importantly the language. While many of these asylum residences are linked up with an amazing cohort of professional and volunteer English language teachers, language learning would be further bolstered by the opportunity to work.

What then of the political potential for transcribing such a policy from the notebook onto the statute book? Well, all the way back in September 2021, Dominic Raab and Steve Baker were among several prominent conservative MPs who made calls for such a policy change, only to be shut down by the Home Office. Similar calls were again made in late 2022 by Robert Buckland, former Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor from 2019 to 2021, during an interview with the Spectator. The idea thus certainly seems to have its admirers, including amongst those in the Tory right who are traditionally regarded as anti-immigration.

The problem for sceptical ministers, however, seems to be a fear that any expansion of the right to work will exacerbate the ‘pull’ factors of immigration and push immigration levels even higher. The strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of current Home Secretary Suella Braverman certainly appears to discount the consideration of policies that even have the appearance of promoting immigration. This is consonant with official Home Office policy documents which state the policy objectives of restricting permission to work include “ensuring a clear distinction between economic migration and asylum”, and “preventing illegal migration for economic reasons”.

Yet, this very reasoning exposes the failure of current policy to properly distinguish between the two sides of the immigration dilemma. Preventing illegal immigration for economic reasons is primarily an external problem – potential responses to which include combatting illegal trafficking, improving the stringency of the requirements for a successful claim, and a workable and humane deportation policy. By contrast, how to treat asylum seekers once they are granted entry is a nonetheless related but necessarily distinct, internal problem. The conflation of these two issues is one of the many reasons the UK, and particularly the Conservative party, continues to tie itself up in knots over immigration. Sunak is committed to pursuing an anti-immigration rhetoric, and his continued support of Braverman doesn’t appear to be waning any time soon. But being ‘tough’ on cutting down the numbers of illegal immigrants, does not also have to mean being ‘tough’ on immigrants once they get here. In fact, when it comes to immigration, the political sweet spot surely lies in being both pro-immigrant and anti-illegal immigration, a fact Sunak currently appears inert to. A policy of giving asylum seekers a right to work would certainly move the Tories in that direction – just don’t hold your breath that it will happen any time soon.

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