No Good Case For Expanding Working Rights Of Asylum Seekers


Employment, Policy

  • Radically expanding working rights for asylum claimants (as some activists are demanding) would spur more abuse of the asylum system by those with unfounded claims – opening a ‘back-door’ to remain here while encouraging dangerous illegal immigration which puts huge burdens on the UK’s housing, public services and communities.
  • A change such as this would further muddy the already-blurred distinction between true and false asylum claims
  • Just under 230,000 asylum claims to the UK since 2004 have been withdrawn or rejected, including after appeal (accounting for half of 450,000 applications in the period 2004-2020).
  • Expanding asylum-related working rights while the system remains subject to wholesale and rising exploitation and growing backlogs would further undermine public support for accepting refugees – something that appears to have already been damaged by previous episodes of abuse – and help to utterly destroy confidence in border control

A number of non-governmental organisations have called for those who have made a claim for asylum to be granted enhanced rights to work in the UK.

The UK currently allows asylum seekers to work if their cases have not been decided after 12 months provided that the job is on the government’s official Shortage Occupation List.

“Lift the Ban” call for the minimum period before which asylum seekers can seek employment to be cut in half, from the current 12 months to just six months and for no restriction to be placed on the work they can do.

Rules on this matter in other European countries range from Lithuania, which does not allow asylum seekers to work at all, to Sweden, which has minimal restrictions on the working rights of asylum seekers.

We believe that there is no need to shorten the current period of twelve months in the UK nor to widen the range of jobs. Indeed, doing so would only further undermine support for genuine asylum applicants, as well as public confidence in immigration control.

Firstly, expanding working rights for asylum claimants would risk encouraging the use of asylum as a back-door form of economic migration and would likely increase the numbers seeking to come to the UK for this purpose.

The UK already has an average of 26,000 asylum applications each year (just under half of which are rejected at first instance) at a time when transcontinental, economically-induced secondary migration is already a huge challenge and in a period when the public already have a low level of trust in the government’s ability to deal with it.

For example, the largest share of those who have illegally come to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean this year are Bangladeshi, and because of relative stability and economic growth there, cannot be said to be vulnerable or fleeing war.

Secondly, amending the rules in this way would encourage bogus claimants to spin out the application process in order to gain permission to work. We know, for instance, that is standard practice for people who are crossing the Channel in small boats without permission to purposely destroy their documentation.

This can sometimes be a deliberate attempt to conceal the fact that they are not from a country where they are at serious risk, and it can add considerable delays to the process.

Often, however, the process is lengthy as a result of inadequate resources and inefficient working processes at the Home Office, as well as morale and bureaucratic problems, rather than fraud by the claimant. The total size of the government’s asylum workload tripled from 40,000 cases in 2012 to 120,000 cases in 2021 (Home Office data).

There is a clear need therefore for the government’s detained fast-track asylum proposals to be approved and implemented as speedily as possible (for more information see paragraph 39 of our paper).

Thirdly, implementing this proposal would blur the distinction between genuine cases and others with the overall effect of reducing public support for the asylum system. The public are willing to help those in genuine need. Yet that generosity is reliant on the accurate and efficient separation of genuine from bogus claims (see our paper on why the key distinction between the terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ is crucial).

Those working for the immigration lobby can often be careless in their use of the definitions.

For instance, the chief executive of Refugee Action recently noted: It’s madness that people fleeing the horrors of conflict and persecution are unable to work for long periods after they arrive in the UK.

This assertion ignores the essential fact that a very significant proportion of asylum seekers not found to be genuine refugees and are not ‘fleeing the horrors of conflict and persecution’. Half of all asylum applications (228,000 out of 450,000) have been withdrawn or rejected, including after appeal, according to Home Office asylum outcome analysis.

In 2016, the Vice-President of the European Commission quoted Frontex figures which revealed that, of migrants who arrived in the EU in December 2015, 60% had come for economic reasons and were not entitled to asylum or humanitarian protection. Meanwhile, nearly 50,000 claims by those who had been discovered by the authorities to be in the UK illegally were rejected between 2005 and 2014.

Finally, removing the constraint that the job needs to be on the Shortage Occupation List, as ‘Lift the Ban’ demands, means that thousands of asylum claimants would likely go to work in low-paid, unskilled jobs. In some regions this could affect the prospects for unskilled UK workers.

It has been claimed that enacting this proposal would encourage integration. However, given significant chance that an asylum claim will not be granted (based on the figures outcome analysis from 2004 onwards), it makes little sense to encourage integration until a case is decided. To do otherwise would give the applicant (and their lawyer) grounds to include in their inevitable appeal.

[1] European Migration Network, “Establishing Identity for International Protection: Challenges and Practices Synthesis Report”, 25.

18th October 2018

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