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By Alex Firth, Research and Communications Officer

In mid-2002, the UK Government made a small, technical change to asylum law, withdrawing the provision which allowed people the right to work after they had been waiting 6 months for a decision on their case. It was later replaced with a new rule stating people had to wait 12 months. Now, 21 years later, the ramifications are still being felt.

At the time, the reason given for this change was that since the asylum system was working so effectively, and cases were being approved swiftly, this provision was not needed. In the Lords debate, the UK Government’s spokesperson assured people that this change in the asylum rules, “does not mean we are ‘Fortress Britain’.”

Over two decades later, our asylum system is at breaking point, with decades of under-staffing and under-resourcing meaning that waiting times for decisions on asylum applications have skyrocketed.

When people do wait the required time, permission is not easily granted, and employment is restricted to the narrow list of skilled professions set by the UK Government. All while the actual people affected by these laws are left in limbo, denied their basic human right to find a job, earn a decent wage, and provide for themselves and their families.

In our recent research carried out into families’ experiences in the asylum system in England, we spoke with people who had been waiting for months and months for a decision in their asylum cases. When we asked them what message they would deliver to the UK Government if they could, one overwhelmingly common response was that they should be allowed to work. The people we interviewed all worked in their home countries, they were nurses, construction workers and civil engineers, but here in the UK, they are numbers in a Home Office database.

Necessary steps for change

Since the research was released, we have contacted UK politicians and met with Labour Party staff to discuss their plans to address this issue if they are involved in forming the next UK Government.

It is undeniable that the next UK Government will be inheriting an asylum system that is on its knees. The Labour Party has so far committed to increasing staff and pay to deal with the backlog. This is a necessary step but is not enough on its own.

There should also be a commitment at least to reinstate the 6-month rule on the ability to work. This is an absolute necessity given how slow the asylum decision making process now is.

The current 12-month waiting period makes the UK an international outlier. For people seeking asylum in European Union countries, the absolute maximum wait time is nine months, with some allowing work after six months. For people seeking asylum in the United States, the wait time is five months; and in Canada people can apply immediately.

This small, somewhat technical change would make a significant and tangible difference to the lives of thousands. Clearly there are changes needed to rebuild the broken asylum system, and at the forefront of that should be an adherence to our human rights obligations, built around people’s lives, rights, and dignity.

Just Fair is a proud supporter of the Lift the Ban Campaign, visit our dedicated webpage to learn what actions you can take to support.

Background image by Nikoleta Nosovska