Ready, Waiting. The UK must let its asylum seekers work.

By Jay Burgess

As the UK finishes marking both Refugee Week and World Refugee Day, one advocacy campaign is gaining mainstream traction. Lift the Ban, an award-winning coalition of 200 members, is campaigning to give asylum seekers in the UK access to work.

Work allows asylum seekers to provide for themselves and their families with dignity, improves mental health and encourages social integration. Such humane legislation would finally bring the UK in line with our equivalent counterparts – our work restrictions are the harshest seen in Europe, the US or Canada.

Backers include charities Amnesty International and British Red Cross, Ben & Jerry’s, faith groups, trade unions, think thanks, and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which represents 190,000 businesses, unions and NGOs. Politically, the campaign’s terms have cross-party support.

The Lift the Ban coalition wants the government to give asylum seekers (and their adult dependants) the right to work:

  • unconstrained by the Shortage Occupation List, and;
  • after they have waited six months for a decision on their initial asylum claim or further submission.

The latest data is concerning. In 2014, the Home Office introduced a target to process 98% of ‘straightforward’ claims within 6 months[i], yet by mid-2018, nearly half (48%, or 14,528) of all applicants were waiting longer than this. This was an increase of over 8% on the previous year, and the highest number since public records began[ii]. Then, in May of this year, the Home Office scrapped the six-month processing target altogether[iii], in the face of an 18% annual increase in total UK asylum applications[iv][v].

So, we are seeing growing numbers of asylum seeker applicants, who are waiting longer than ever to hear a decision, with no right to work (unless for a very specific, highly specialised role, and after a 12-month minimum wait), but what does life in wait look like?

Preventing Destitution

“I wouldn’t have money to buy a ticket to see my cousins in Manchester. You can’t work, have no bank account, no travel outside the UK. You don’t have money to top up your phone. The accommodation don’t provide Wifi, you can’t have a tv at home – you need a license and you can’t afford paying for that. You sit somewhere they call ‘accommodation’. I consider it a prison.”  Ayman, a Syrian asylum seeker 2 years in waiting[vi].

As an asylum seeker waiting on a decision on your claim, you are provided welfare support of £37.75 per week, or £5.39 per day[vii]. This is half of what is provided on mainstream income support. This must cover your living expenses – food, clothing, toiletries, transport and any costs related to your application or status (e.g phone credit for, and trips to, solicitors, or possible fortnightly visits to ‘check-in’ at a local police station). This situation could remain for months or even years.

As a result of these imposed restrictions, most asylum seekers are living in poverty, with poor health and hunger, and many are unable to afford basic necessities including clothing, powdered milk and nappies[viii]. Over half (52%) of Refugee Action’s survey respondents reported using a food bank at least once in the past year[ix].

“There were times I could not afford sanitary towels. I would walk into public toilets and steal toilet paper to use. How dehumanising is that?” Faith, participant at Refugee Action focus group[x]

A Sense of Dignity

“I want to work in this country because I want to find my identity. My identity is my work, my identity is my job. If I can work, I can improve my life and I can help other people. I will be happy and confident.” Ahmet, participant at Refugee Action focus group[xi]

“If I was allowed to work, I would feel like a human. Everyone knows what being a human is… It is very good for everybody.” Hina, participant at Refugee Action focus group[xii]

94% of asylum seeker respondents in Refugee Action’s survey said that they would like to work if they were given permission to do so. The same survey showed that for many, work is a large factor in providing identity, and felt like a ‘fundamental part of their humanity’[xiii]. The absence of employment damages such people’s sense of pride and dignity. Enabling work also allows them to be able to provide for themselves and their families, if they are able.

Some asylum seekers have pre-existing skills and are looking to continue their careers in the UK. Obstructing their ability to work can damage their long-term career prospects; one Home Office study found that disrupted employment histories have an ‘adverse effect on future employment’[xiv], especially in fast-developing industries that rely on current trends and technology. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has acknowledged that labour market access increases self-reliance for asylum seekers, and avoids loss of skills before they become obsolete[xv].

Faced with a small budget to live on, and no option for legal employment, asylum seekers are often forced to resort to working illegally. Here, they have no basic workers’ rights and are often exploited, and are vulnerable to modern slavery and prostitution. This is often a last resort for asylum seekers to meet the financial needs for themselves and those they support.[xvi] [xvii]

Mental and Physical Health

I know a lot of refugees who are very close friends. Some speak English fluently, they have skills, but they are just mentally, they can’t do anything, they just find it so hard… People in Syria have seen dead people, they’ve been bombed. They come here with all this pressure…” Ayman, Refugee Rights Europe interviewee

Both asylum seekers and refugees report higher rates of depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders, driven by a mixture of both pre-migration experiences (e.g war trauma, torture, famine), and post-migration conditions (e.g separation from family, difficulty with asylum procedures and poor housing)[xviii].

Asylum seekers specifically are ‘five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population’ and over 61% will experience ‘serious’ mental distress – all whilst receiving less support than the general population[xix].

Employability affects the mental health and wellbeing of asylum seekers. Research found that:

  • Unemployed asylum seekers were more than twice as likely to have a major depressive disorder than those in employment[xx].
  • In general, adults in employment are less likely to suffer from common mental health problems[xxi].
  • Unemployed persons were found to have increased levels of depression, further exacerbated by a lack of a support network of family and friends. Asylum seekers are unable to work, and therefore may be more likely to suffer from depression as a result[xxii].
  • Unemployed persons whose income consists of a high proportion of cash benefits report higher anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and lower feelings of purpose[xxiii].
  • Regarding their applications, many asylum seekers find themselves without the emotional and physical resources to engage with the legal process[xxiv].

The current restrictions also take their toll on physical health:

  • A 2018 study revealed that women with refugee or asylum seeker status face significant barriers to accessing or continuing with perinatal healthcare (applicable during pregnancy or in the first year following the birth of a child), due, in part, to the hindrance employability restrictions played in their social integration, which, for example, may have caused a lack of awareness of available resources and support[xxv].
  • Some postnatal asylum seekers were skipping meals because the fixed mealtime at their accommodation gave them no choice but to attend their appointments and go hungry[xxvi]. Allowing asylum seekers to work and live self-sufficiently would alleviate this health risk.
  • For those (over half of asylum seekers in one survey) relying on food banks, consistent malnourishment can lead to significant health complications[xxvii].

Being Part of Society

“If I could have learned English with aid from the government, ‘I would have put more trust in myself, and had confidence.” Samer, Sudanese refugee, Founder of Hopetowns

Employment in the workplace at an early stage could increase the prospects for newcomers to feel and become part of society in numerous ways:

  • It could help asylum seekers to learn and improve their English. Currently, asylum seekers cannot access government-funded English language teaching until after a 6 month wait on a decision, at which point only 50% of the course is covered, meaning that many are unable to afford it[xxviii].
  • It may help asylum seekers to acquire new skills relevant to the UK workplace.
  • Enable asylum seekers to make new friends and social contacts in the wider community.
  • Generate income for asylum seekers to be able to participate in everyday social activities.
  • Reduce stigmatisation and build healthy cross-culture connections in local communities.

Public support for the integration of asylum seekers is strong. In one 2018 study, which used a wide cross section of the UK population, 71% of respondents agreed (and only 8% disagreed) with the 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.”

The Home Office does, however, allow asylum seekers to volunteer for a charity or public sector organisation. However, due to the little money they are forced to live on, asylum seekers cannot always fund volunteering roles, and are found ‘often walking hours every day to attend courses run by voluntary organisations – because taking the bus could mean that they cannot afford to eat that day’[xxix].

Ready, waiting – let’s Lift the Ban!

The reasons for opening work access to asylum seekers in the UK are many, and public support is strong. Allowing asylum seekers the right to work would be a humane policy response which upholds human rights, and provides asylum seekers with dignity, purpose, mental and physical health benefits, and integration.

It is clearly time for the UK to address this harmful policy and allow asylum seekers the right to work once again.

You can sign Refugee Action’s Lift the Ban petition here.
If you would like to do more, see Lift the Ban coalition’s Local Activism Pack.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Refugee Rights Europe. 







[vi] Interviewed by author






[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Ibid









[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Ibid






[xxix] Ibid

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