Special report: Should asylum seekers be allowed to work?

Although the government’s policy prevents asylum seekers
from working while their asylum claims are being processed, there
is increasing support for the rules to be changed,
writes Clare Jerrom.

An exclusive poll carried out for Community Care found
that 78 per cent of the public thought that those seeking refuge in
the UK should be allowed to work while their applications are being

Four out of five of the 1000 people surveyed are supportive of
allowing asylum seekers to get a job, particularly in areas where
there are skills shortages.

Although it is unclear at this stage what proportion of asylum
seekers would have the appropriate skills to fill these shortages,
Refugee Action’s chief executive Sandy Buchan said:
“Many are qualified professionals yet they are banned from

Bharti Patel, the Refugee Council’s head of policy, added:
“Every opinion poll on this subject draws the same
conclusion: that the vast majority of the public believe asylum
seekers should work, and it is about time the government started

The government used to allow asylum seekers to work if they had
not had an initial decision about their asylum claim within six
months. However the Home Office ended this practice in July

It claimed that the concession had only been introduced in 1986
because lengthy delays were widespread. Because the vast majority
of asylum seekers were now receiving an initial decision within six
months’ it had now become irrelevant.

“The vast majority – around 80 per cent –of
asylum seekers receive a decision within six months, and we are
working to improve that further,” said Beverley Hughes, Home
Office minister last July. “An increasingly small number of
people, therefore, are entitled to apply for the concession and I
have decided to abolish it.”

More than a year on and the Home Office stands by this
rationale. A spokesperson said this week: “The reason we
don’t think asylum seekers need to work is because asylum
applications are dealt with much more quickly now.”

However the latest available asylum statistics, from the second
quarter of 2003, show that 22,900 asylum seekers waited for more
than six months for an initial decision at the end of June,
although a Home Office spokesperson insisted this figure “was
the lowest it has been in a decade”.

Unsurprisingly, not all parties are in agreement on the right to
work. The previous rule allowing asylum seekers to work if their
initial decision was delayed for more than six months was
introduced under a Tory government, although a Conservative party
spokesperson acknowledged that there were far fewer asylum seekers
coming to the UK when they were in power.

The spokesperson said that the government has banned asylum
seekers from working because they were trying to bring
“order” to the asylum system and this would act as a
“deterring factor”.

However, denying asylum seekers the right to work legally could
force them into illegal work in the black market, the spokesperson
warned. Once underground, these asylum seekers become difficult to
trace and the system becomes “shambolic”, he added.

This also causes problems for employers. A spokesperson for the
Confederation of British Industry said: “Employers want a
situation where they are less likely to run the risk of taking on
illegal workers.”

Allowing asylum seekers whose claims are being processed to work
would be one way of achieving this, as would processing claims more
quickly, he added.

The Conservative party spokesperson said the main problem was
the chaos within the asylum system and the high numbers of people
claiming asylum. If the system was more orderly “then there
wouldn’t need for these strict rules on employment and
benefits”, he said.

“If the government could get the asylum system into order,
there is no reason why we could not go back to the previous
rules,” he added.

The Liberal Democrat party opposed the government’s move
last July to prevent asylum seekers working.

The party’s home affairs spokesperson, Simon Hughes, said:
“The government’s decision to abolish the employment
concession for asylum seekers may make the system faster. But
denying people the right to work will not make it

At the time, he urged all asylum seekers in the UK to receive
training in English, IT and business skills and, after six months,
be allowed to work, arguing that there were plenty of jobs that
asylum seekers were willing to undertake.

Earlier this month, in written evidence to the home affairs
committee inquiry into asylum applications, Hughes highlighted

· Asylum seekers were currently demonised for
“sponging” from the state
· The size of the budget for asylum support was widely
· Asylum seekers’ presence in towns during the day
encouraged perceptions of indolence and contributed to community
· Many asylum seekers undertook illegal work with all the
risks that entails
· Many asylum seekers had skills which were in demand in the
UK, and those skills were allowed to deteriorate when not put to
good use

Reinstating and extending asylum seekers’ rights to work
would provide a solution to many of those problems, he argued.

“Liberal Democrats believe that the arguments in favour of
allowing asylum seekers to work far outweigh the argument that the
right to work constitutes a ‘pull factor’ for economic
migrants to exploit the system,” Hughes concluded.

Communities often feel hostile towards asylum seekers as a
result of misperceptions that they “jump the queue”
with local services and are “scrounging”.

Nadeem Ahmad, the regional manager of the North East Consortium
for Asylum Support Services, believes that allowing asylum seekers
to work could ease some community tensions. “It would help in
the long-term with settlement and community relations.”

“The government talks about community cohesion. But you
feel valued when making a contribution to society,” he

However Ahmad warned that in some areas of high unemployment,
communities may feel threatened that asylum seekers could take jobs
away from local people. He suggested that pilot projects were
carried out to establish the pros and cons of allowing asylum
seekers to work.

But, while there remains much support for allowing those seeking
refuge in the UK to make their contributions to their communities
and society, the Home Office stands firm that there are “no
plans” to change existing rules.

Instead the spokesperson suggested asylum seekers undertook
voluntary work. “It is important asylum seekers are involved
in purposeful activity while their asylum claim is being assessed
so they can build important skills that they can use in the future
and give something back to the community,” the spokesperson

Patel is not convinced: “It is in everyone’s
interest for asylum seekers to work. The asylum seekers themselves
gain independence and dignity,” she said. “Many
cultural barriers are broken down in the workplace and it is
excellent for community cohesion. And the economy

The survey was carried out as part of Community
campaign, Right to Refuge, which calls
for fair treatment for asylum seekers and refugees.








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