In a statement to the House of Commons this week, the government confirmed that they will not lift the ban that prevents asylum seekers from working whilst they await their application outcome in the UK.
Since October 2018, over 250 charities, businesses, faith groups, think thanks and trade unions came together to campaign against the UK Government’s ban on asylum seekers being able to work whilst their application is being resolved. Their coalition, “Lift the Ban” prepared a report which they presented to the Home Office. In October 2020, they presented the Home Office with a petition that gathered over 180,000 signatures calling on the Government to lift the ban.
But what does this ban entail exactly, and what would lifting it mean?
Under international law, there is no obligation on countries to grant asylum seekers the right to work. Each country is allowed to make their own rules on the matter. Sweden is most generous in its approach, as they do not impose any restrictions on asylum seekers’ working rights. In most other countries, asylum seekers will have to wait a few months before being allowed to work. Sometimes, they will have to pass a resident market labour test to show that the position they are accepting could not be filled by a member of the domestic labour force.
As a general rule, people seeking asylum in the UK are banned from working whilst waiting for their asylum claim to be resolved. Instead, they receive £39.62 per week, or £5.66 per day, from the Home Office to survive, an amount that is laughable in the face of actual cost of living in the UK. This puts many at risk of exploitation and/or destitution.
There are exceptions to this general rule; in some circumstances, asylum seekers may apply for permission to work. For example, if an applicant’s asylum claim is outstanding for 12 months or more, and where the delay is not the applicant’s fault, they may apply to obtain the right to work. If permission is granted, they can then apply for jobs on the Shortage Occupation list. Only applicants themselves can apply for such an exception; dependants of applicants (e.g. partners or children) cannot apply for permission to work at all.
Lift the Ban’s 2018 report argued that these rules are overly restrictive, stating that the UK is “an outlier amongst comparable countries.” Indeed, though certain European countries also require the applicant to do a resident market labour test, the waiting period is often shorter or the types of job available wider. According to Lift the Ban, this is also true for Canada and the USA. In addition, restricting the right to work leads to increased modern slavery and forced labour, as asylum seekers are forced to go underground if they wish to survive.
The report’s recommendations include shortening the timeframe for permission to work from 12 to 6 months and removing restrictions to the types of jobs asylum seekers are allowed to do. Implementing these recommendations would benefit the government financially, said Lift the Ban, estimating benefits of up to £180.8m a year. In addition, allowing asylum seekers to work would push their integration into British society, as well as allow them to live in dignity and security whilst awaiting the outcome of their application.
The government has now responded to Lift the Ban’s recommendations, stating that their evidence “indicates the assumptions underpinning the recommendations are highly optimistic.” Their main argument is that the benefits outlined in Lift the Ban’s report are overstated, because if migrants are allowed to work, they tend to work in precarious jobs, often part-time, and not very lucratively.
Tom Pursglove, MP for Corby, said: "In light of wider priorities to fix the broken asylum system, reduce pull factors to the UK, and ensure our policies do not encourage people to undercut the resident labour force, we are retaining our asylum seeker right to work policy with no further changes." The Home Office considers that resources should instead be redirected to ensure timely responses to asylum claims, so that applicants can resolve their status quickly and either leave the UK upon rejection or stay and find work upon receiving their status.
In summer 2021, the backlog of asylum cases passed 70,000, despite the number of applications being down since the pandemic hit. In addition, the number of applicants waiting an initial decision on their application for longer than six months has been rising 40% year after year since the early 2000s. To clear the backlog, the Home Office wants to create a fast-track system of applications, the framework of which is set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill.
Advocates for lifting the ban, and for a more humane asylum system in general, say that fast-track applications will lead to more mistakes and wrong decisions. As it stands, almost half the initial decisions made by the Home Office are already being overturned upon appeal. The 250-member Lift The Ban coalition certainly agrees with the Home Office that months- if not year-long delays on asylum applications are a disgrace. The solution they present, however, could not be more divergent from the Home Office’s. Though the Home Office’s statement, which ironically took three years to produce, was disappointing, they will not stop campaigning.
In September 2020, the government decided to start using two former army barracks in Wales and Kent to house asylum seekers, most of whom arrived in small boats crossing the channel. The barracks, Napier (Kent) and Penally (Wales), can house up to 665 people.
General government policy is to house asylum seekers within communities whilst they wait for a decision on their asylum claim. Where housing in communities is not possible, the government started putting people in barracks as “temporary solutions.” The solutions, it turns out, were not so temporary, as some residents are kept at the barracks for weeks, if not months, on end.
The barracks are managed by private contractor Clearsprings. Ever since their opening, they have been criticised for their living conditions, including overcrowding, limited access to healthcare and legal advice, as well as abominable food and sanitary services.
The pandemic has exacerbated these circumstances. Social distancing is impossible in the barracks; people sleep in bunk beds separated only by a sheet. There have been rumours of curfews and limitations on residents’ movement, which the Home Office steadily deny, stating that the only restrictions in place for the residents are the COVID-19 related restrictions in force across the nation.
To make matters worse, a recently-leaked report shows that Public Health England warned against using dormitories in army barracks to house asylum seekers months ago. This advice was ignored, with the residents bearing the consequences. At Napier barracks, residents with negative COVID-19 test results were made to stay in the same room as those who tested positive. Add do that the lack of access to a GP and other standard healthcare provisions, and a COVID outbreak seemed unavoidable. The inevitable ultimately happened, and in January, as many as one out of four residents at Napier tested positive with the coronavirus.
After the outbreak, the government released most, but not all, residents from Napier barracks. 63 asylum seekers remain at Napier today. Trapped in the camps, their mental health is deteriorating. Many of them have lived through trauma either in their home country or during their journey to the UK, and are therefore extremely vulnerable.
Six asylum seekers brought a case against the government, arguing that conditions at the barracks are inhumane. Their case was heard in the High Court last week, during which the Home Office conceded that it was arguable that the use of Napier barracks to house refugees is unlawful and in breach of human rights. Judge Martin Chamberlain ruled for the asylum seekers, and a two-day judicial review hearing of the government policy and the circumstances in the barracks is set to begin on 13 April.
The atrocious situation in the barracks is not an isolated event. Rather, it is symptomatic of the way this government has treated migrants all along. The outsourcing of services to private contractors, the segregation of migrants, and the demonisation of those seeking to enter the UK via unconventional routes are not new policies. The hostile environment’s aim, after all, is to make the UK as inhospitable as possible so as to make migrants leave the country voluntarily. Its methods inherently lead to stigmatisation and segregation, and in this case go as far as putting the migrants in objectively abhorrent conditions in the middle of a global pandemic.
If you want to take action in the meantime, sign Freedom from Torture’s petition to empty the barracks here, write to your MP to highlight the issue and help spread awareness of that is going on.
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