Work or forced labour?

There were the seeds of a sensible policy in the announcement by
then home secretary David Blunkett that failed asylum seekers would
be given work. Removing them from the country had proved more
difficult than expected: for some it was too dangerous to return
home, whereas for others there was nowhere to go when their
countries of origin rejected them.

For the immigration lobby it was a wonder that many of these asylum
claims had been turned down in the first place. If the authorities
agreed that it was too dangerous to return home, why doubt that
they had been fleeing persecution? For the government, of course,
the question was different. It was how to throw more of them out of
the UK more quickly; hence Tony Blair’s promise last September that
the number of failed asylum seekers sent home would exceed the
number of new failed applications by the end of this year.

The offer of work was a clever wheeze. It would help to deal with
the electoral liability of asylum seekers “sponging” off the state
and it would help to keep track of them until the time was ripe to
eject them. But, unsurprisingly for a government with such a
cynical approach, there was a fatal flaw. First, if failed asylum
seekers were allowed to work, why not all? Those whose claims are
being processed are still barred.

And, second, it wasn’t so much “work” they were being offered as
compulsory community service. It is this that has caused the YMCA
to pull out of the government scheme to get them into jobs. Just as
offenders do community service to repay a debt to society, so it
turned out that failed asylum seekers were required to do it to
repay a debt to the British taxpayer.

All asylum seekers should have the right to work because, as one
church organisation put it, “it is conducive to their dignity,
mental health and can help overcome the [public] feeling that they
are somehow scroungers.” But the government’s scheme is not the way
to go about it.

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