This blog is part of CGD and Refugee International’s #LetThemWork initiative and written in conjunction with Refugee Action. It is one of a series of blogs exploring the issues facing refugees’ economic inclusion within the top refugee and forced migrant hosting countries. All are being authored with local experts and provide a snapshot of the barriers refugees face and what the policy priorities are going forward. You can read a blog on the impacts of the ban here.
Every year, tens of thousands of people claim asylum in the UK, with many of them waiting years before they receive a decision. In the first year of their wait, asylum seekers have no legal right to work and must survive on minimal government support. After this point, they can apply for the right to work, but available roles are heavily restricted.
This policy has detrimental effects for the asylum seeker and their family, their country of origin, and even the UK. Changing this policy could benefit the UK through a net gain of almost £181 million per year. The first part of this blog looks at why asylum seekers in the UK don’t have the right to work. The second part, available here, looks at the impacts of this ban and what a potential way forward might look like.
Claiming asylum in the UK
Anyone wanting to claim asylum in the UK must do so either at a port of entry or after they have already entered the country. These “asylum seekers” could be granted the ability to stay in the UK under a number of grounds, including those in the 1951 Refugee Convention (“refugee status”) and UK-specific provisions such as other forms of humanitarian protection.
From September 2020 to September 2021, there were 37,562 applications for asylum. In the same period, 64 percent of applications were approved and of the negative decisions that went to appeal, 48 percent were overturned. Applicants came from diverse countries including Iran, Albania, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and El Salvador, and approval rates varied wildly. For example, Libyans had a 98 percent approval rate, while Indians were at 5 percent.
It’s difficult to compare these numbers against other high-income countries as all countries maintain their own asylum grounds, but the UK receives fewer applications than others; in 2020, Germany received 122,015 applications and France 93,475.
The UK Government claims that asylum seekers should get an initial decision within six months, but analysis by the Refugee Council has found that the average wait is between one and three years, largely due to processing backlogs (figure 1). More than 250 people have been waiting for five years or more. People then have recourse to appeal their decision, and roughly half of decisions are overturned.
Figure 1. Asylum claimants waiting more than six months for a decision
Source: Refugee Council (2021)
Note: Includes main applicants (over 18) only
For their first year of waiting, asylum seekers do not have the legal right to work. After then, asylum seekers who are still waiting for a decision can apply for permission to work, but that permission is restricted to roles on the Shortage Occupation List and does not include self-employment. Once granted asylum, they have unrestricted access to the labour market. In the meantime, asylum seekers receive housing and £5.66 per day (approximately US$7.72) for necessities such as food, sanitation, and clothing.
Most high-income countries place some restrictions on the length of time asylum seekers must wait (though none as long as 12 months; figure 2) and some limit the professions in which asylum seekers can work. And of course, these policies are only one part of asylum seekers' entry into the labour market. As CGD and Refugee International’s research has shown, many countries have significant de facto (practical) barriers to economic inclusion that must be overcome, regardless of the de jure (legal) context.
Figure 2. Length of time (in months) before people seeking asylum are given the right to work
Source: Refugee Action (2020)
Right to work as a “pull factor”
Whether asylum seekers should have the right to work has long been a focus of policy debate in the UK. Asylum seekers could originally apply for permission to work if they had been waiting six months or more; this provision was withdrawn in 2002. Since then, reform efforts (including the 2016 Immigration Act) have sought to return to this six-month clause with little success.
In general, the main contention is that providing the right to work would act as a “pull factor” for future irregular migration. There are two main parts to this. The first is that people would choose to claim asylum in the UK over other countries (commonly known as “asylum shopping”) because the conditions are more favourable.
The second is more nuanced. The current Home Office policy guidance states that the ban is in place to “ensure a clear distinction between economic migration and asylum that discourages those who do not need protection from claiming asylum to benefit from economic opportunities they would not otherwise be eligible for.” The assertion seems to be that so-called “economic migrants” would use the asylum system to access the UK labour market, rather than coming through labour migration pathways.
Whether providing the right to work acts as a “pull factor” is a subject of intense interest within the academic community. In 2016, researchers at the University of Warwick looked at 30 studies exploring the factors determining the country of destination chosen by asylum seekers. They concluded that no study found a long-term correlation between labour market access and destination choice, and that access to work had little, if any, effect on asylum applications. Other research focused on the Global South has found some evidence that liberal policies attract forced migrants.
There is limited evidence that access to the UK labour market is a “pull factor.” Studies by the #LiftTheBan coalition in the UK and by Refugee Action have found many people had a very limited understanding of the asylum system before they entered it. This is supported by a wide range of evidence (e.g. Gilbert and Koser, 2006; Refugee Council, 2010), including research carried out for the UK Home Office in 2002, which shows asylum seekers have limited control over the countries they go to, and this is not determined by a singular “pull factor.”
Instead, evidence shows that people seek to claim asylum in a country to which they have linguistic, cultural, familial, or community ties. People may claim asylum in a country because they believe it to be broadly tolerant or welcoming of refugees, however this generally tends to be based on an overall impression of a country’s international reputation rather than a view based on specific policy knowledge. It is therefore unlikely that changing the policy stance on right to work would have a sizeable impact on these “pull factors.”
Yet while this policy stance lacks a strong grounding in evidence, it does have a strong impact on asylum seekers, their families and communities back home, and the UK itself. The second blog in this series explores these impacts and what a potential way forward might look like.
Note: The #LiftTheBan coalition is made up of more than 250 UK organizations, including businesses, recruiters, think tanks, faith groups, trade unions, and refugee charities. Refugee Action is one of two organizations in the secretariat, the other being Asylum Matters.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.