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Should asylum seekers have unrestricted rights to work in the UK?

Published Wednesday, May 11, 2016

As a general rule, asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK. But they can apply for permission to fill a shortage vacancy if they have been waiting for over 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim. Attempts were made during the passage of the Immigration Bill 2015-16 to relax these restrictions, but they did not have Government support and were unsuccessful.

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The current position

As a general rule, asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK. They can only apply for permission to work if:

  • they have waited for over 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim, or they have been refused asylum but have not received a response to further submissions submitted over 12 months ago; and
  • they are not considered responsible for the delay in decision-making.

Permission to work only allows asylum seekers to take up jobs on the UK’s official shortage occupation list. It expires once the asylum claim has been finally determined (i.e. when all appeal rights are exhausted). 

During the passage of the Immigration Bill 2015-16, peers voted in favour of a new clause which would have shortened the qualifying period for applying for permission to work and enabled asylum seekers to take up any job, or voluntary work or self-employment. The clause did not have Government support and was rejected during ping-pong stage.

Calls to change the policy, and the Government’s response

For more than a decade, the UK’s policies to restrict asylum seekers’ rights to work in the UK have attracted criticism from NGOs, trade unions, churches and some Parliamentarians, amongst others. Calls for change have tended to focus on:

  • reducing the length of time that asylum seekers must wait before becoming eligible to apply for permission to work (in particular, to six months, which is UKVI’s standard target for asylum decision-making), and
  • allowing refused asylum seekers to work if there is a temporary obstacle preventing their departure from the UK (such as lack of cooperation from the authorities in their country of origin).

Suggested advantages of extending asylum seekers’ rights to work include that it would:

  • benefit the UK economy and reduce the costs to the taxpayer of supporting asylum seekers
  • alleviate some of the difficulties that asylum seekers can face during the asylum determination process, such as social and economic exclusion, de-skilling, low self-esteem and poor mental health, and improve asylum seekers’ integration and employment prospects in the event of a positive asylum decision
  • reduce asylum seekers’ vulnerability to exploitation through working illegally

Successive governments have rejected calls to extend asylum seekers’ rights to work. They have consistently emphasised concerns that to do so might encourage unfounded asylum claims. Campaigners have argued that there is little evidence to support this assertion.

International comparisons

Comparable provisions in other EU Member States vary. For example, Germany and Belgium grant permission to work after three and six months respectively. The recast Reception Conditions Directive reduced the maximum waiting time for permission to work from twelve to nine months across EU Member States. The UK, Ireland and Denmark are not participating in the recast Directive.

Commons Briefing papers SN01908

Author: Melanie Gower

Topic: Asylum

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