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By Koldo Casla

The UK ignores international conventions by preventing people seeking asylum from finding work. Relaxing the exceptionally stringent rules would boost the economy and could prove surprisingly popular.

29,380 people applied for asylum in the UK last year. This means that there were 5 applications for every 10,000 people living in the country. That’s little more than one third of the average in the European Union, which overall receives 14 applications per 10,000 people.

Despite the Government’s intentions to speed up the process, currently more than half of applicants waiting for an initial decision on their asylum claim have been waiting for more than six months.

Since 2002, people seeking asylum in the UK are not allowed to work during the first year of their application. The UK is a continental outlier: no other country in Europe is so restrictive in denying people seeking asylum access to the labour market. Instead of the chance to earn a living for themselves and for their families, people seeking asylum are given a weekly cash allowance equivalent to just over £5 per day per person. At the end of 2018, there were 44,258 people receiving these payments.

Those who flee war and the worst human rights violations do not want handouts. They deserve a chance to contribute with their talent and skills, and to seek a decent standard of living for themselves and for their loved ones.

“If people want to work and you don’t allow them to, not only do you make them dependent on some system, but you expose them to mental health issues.” (Laura, who had to leave Congo first and then Ivory Coast)

“For one and a half years, I had to rely on charities and friends to help me. There were times when I couldn’t afford to buy food or pay for my basic needs. I would spend most of my time at home, all alone. I felt helpless. If I had been allowed to work earlier on, I would feel more independent now, not only financially but also mentally, being able to work would have made me a stronger person today.” (Malak)

As shown in a new report by Just Fair and the Lift the Ban coalition published today, lifting the ban on asylum seekers would also take the UK closer to international human rights standards the country. In accordance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – which the UK has voluntarily committed to abide by – everyone is entitled to just and favourable conditions of work, including a fair and decent remuneration, equal pay for equal work between men and women, safe and healthy working conditions, equal opportunities of promotion, and reasonable working hours and paid holidays. Everyone should enjoy the rights recognised in the International Covenant, and this applies to both refugees and people seeking asylum, who are at greater risk of facing discrimination in the enjoyment of their socio-economic rights. This is why, as pointed out by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “pending a decision on their claim to be recognised as refugees, asylum seekers should be granted a temporary status, allowing them to enjoy economic, social and cultural rights without discrimination”.

There is popular support for the idea. Polling undertaken by the Lift the Ban coalition in 2018 with a wide cross-section of the population showed that 71% of people agreed with the following statement: “When people come to the UK seeking asylum it is important they integrate, learn English and get to know people. It would help integration if asylum-seekers were allowed to work if their claim takes more than six months to process”.

There is also an economic case to allow asylum seekers to work. Lift the Ban estimates that doing so would result in a £42.4 million gain for society by totalling the revenue gained through National Insurance contributions and taxable income, assuming 50% of people eligible to work were in employment paid at the current national average wage, and the savings that the Government would make if the same number of people were moved off the subsistence cash support. Two thirds of business leaders and the Confederation of British Industry agree people seeking asylum should have the right to work.

People who have risked everything to find safety in the UK should have the best chance of contributing and integrating into society. This means giving people seeking asylum the right to work so that they can use their skills and live in dignity. The UK Government should give people seeking asylum and their adult dependants the right to work after they have waited six months for a decision on their initial asylum claim.

A policy change in this direction would be welcomed by the public and it would benefit the economy. It would also mean the UK meets international human rights law and is no longer a continental outlier.

Lifting the ban to allow asylum seekers to work after six months in the country is a popular policy that is consistent with British liberal values and that benefits the economy at the same time. What else could a politician hope for?

First appeared in Open Democracy