By Maria Stankiewicz
It is not rare to hear the terms ‘asylum-seeker’ and ‘refugee’ used interchangeably. In many situations – when chanting at the top of your lungs that ‘refugees are welcome here’, for instance, the specific definitions are of secondary importance. The implications of this legal distinction become crucial in immigration policy. Whether you are deemed to be an ‘asylum seeker’ or a ‘refugee’ drastically changes your rights and entitlements.
In the UK context, ‘refugee’ is a person who has been officially granted protection based on their “well-rounded fear of being persecuted (…)”. An ‘asylum-seeker’, on the other hand is someone who has applied for refugee status and provided evidence for persecution, in which their application is still being processed – they may or may not be granted the refugee status.
Access to education, health care, housing and employment plays a significant role in the refugee integration strategy in the UK and are considered both means of facilitating integration and markers of its success. Asylum-seekers have limited access to all of them, but since 2002, they have been fully excluded from undertaking paid employment. Having no right to work compounded by the time-frame that asylum-seekers spend in forced unemployment has significant consequences on the capacity of those granted refuge to become fully integrated into the economic system of the UK.
Scrutinising this link is particularly crucial as nearly 40% of asylum-seekers remain in the UK either as refugees or as beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. The waiting time for the initial decision exceeds 12 months for two-thirds of asylum seekers, and in 2018, a backlog of 88,000 applications existed in the UK. This means that more than 88,000 people were held in legal limbo, surviving on governmental handouts amounting to half of those of job seekers.
The long waiting times for an asylum decision has important impacts on individuals’ ability to become financially self-sufficient and fully integrated into the economic system upon receiving the refugee status, which should not be underestimated. In the UK, refugees experience one of the lowest employment rates. Their economic participation level is much lower than that of ethnic minorities (29% vs. 60%). At the same time, refugees are often confined to precarious employment and, on average, earn 55% of the earnings of a UK-born resident.
Even those refugees who spoke English proficiently and had received education in systems similar to that of the UK (for example, in Zimbabwe) predominantly find themselves (under)employed in the secondary labour market. They encounter different obstacles in accessing the labour market, including low-pay, unsocial hours, and temporary contracts alongside limited possibilities of advancement, strenuous conditions, and frustration. This disparity may be and has been attributed to prolonged forced unemployment during the asylum process.
A longitudinal study in Switzerland revealed that each additional year of waiting in asylum-decision limbo reduces refugees’ employment rate by four to five percentage points.  The initial seven months after arrival in the new country is called the ‘early integration window’. Incorporating an asylum-seeker into paid employment in this period brings disproportionate benefits to the economic integration of those granted refugee statuses.
Delaying granting permission to work by seven months continued to have a negative effect on refugees’ employment and earnings even a decade later. Notably, those affected failed to secure stable employment due to gaps in experience, lack of local references, skills atrophy, and mental health concerns. Research shows that the larger the socioeconomic and professional gap in migrants’ situations before and after fleeing a country, the more difficult it is for them to feel at home and become active members of the receiving community. This gap is widened by years of unemployment.
Simultaneously, contrary to popular belief, easier access to the labour market for asylum-seekers has not been found to contribute to individuals without a valid asylum claim to present themselves as refugees in order to enter a country.The UK policy regarding the right to work for asylum-seekers is currently the strictest in Europe. Six months is a common time-frame after which asylum-seekers can work without restrictions in several European countries, including Belgium, Finland, Italy, and Spain, as they were allowed in the UK between 1986 and 2002.
Together with asylum-seekers and refugees themselves, British refugee community organisations and charities have been advocating for a similar solution to be implemented in the UK.Merely finding employment does not necessarily correspond to economic integration unless it leads to economic self-sufficiency. Lessons from resettlement programmes, where refugees from UNHCR camps are welcomed in a country with full rights from day one, show that rushing refugees into precarious employment at the expense of language learning and developing an understanding of the British society and the labour market is counterproductive to sustainable economic integration.
In these cases, refugees entered employment far below their skill level, worked antisocial hours and/or long shifts alongside fellow countrymen, and were unable to access weekend and after-work language and skill courses or gain language skills on the job. Their English did not improve as much, and the linguistic base which can contribute to increased confidence and facilitate certain elements of integration was not achieved.
The forced unemployment of asylum-seekers has a long-term adverse effect on their consecutive economic integration as refugees. It leads to skills being lost as well as has implications for mental health, well-being, and feelings of belonging. Allowing asylum-seekers to access paid employment would not only support their well-being but also provide the UK economy with an estimated net gain of £97.8 million a year.
This is by reducing government funding spent on asylum support and allowing asylum-seekers to contribute to the economy through taxes and National Insurance contributions. This topic has been increasingly present in the public eye and the Parliament. There is no doubt that the question of the right of asylum-seekers to work will remain high on the agenda of British non-governmental organisations and committed members of Parliament over the next years – particularly as hostile policies relating to asylum and migration take the lead.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.
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