Asylum seekers - extending the right to work: evaluation, analysis, and policy options

This report sets out analysis and policy options which would extend the right to work to asylum seekers in Scotland, and reviews current UK Government policy about this topic.

2. Rationale for Change

Having explored the background to the current UK policy, its justifications, and challenges to these, we now explore the potential benefits of a change in policy – for the workforce, for society in improved integration outcomes, and for asylum seekers’ well-being and longer-term prospects. In doing so we also consider evidence from other countries with less restrictive policies regulating labour market access.

2.1 Potential benefits for the UK/Scottish workforce

UK policy in this area increasingly stands out from trends in other European and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. It is highly restrictive and inflexible and denies the potential benefits of allowing asylum seekers to help fill skills shortages or meet related demographic challenges. This is in direct contradiction to the views of both Scottish Government and wider Scottish public opinion on the need for and potential benefits of immigration. We do not wish to suggest that migration for humanitarian protection should be constrained by or contingent on wider demographic or economic policy goals and needs. Nevertheless, consideration of the consequences of such movements should explore the potential benefits as well as understanding the possible burdens and risks.

International research and agencies including the OECD have pointed out that displaced migrants can offer significant economic potential to receiving countries, bringing new skill sets, perspectives and experiences.[52] Across Europe, flows from third countries have been viewed as bringing potential to fill gaps in low and high skilled occupations; address labour market imbalances; increase tax contributions; and spur innovation and economic growth.[53] Where there is evidence of economic benefits relating to third country immigration however, the specific contribution of asylum seekers is not documented making these impacts hard to quantify. Chapter 3 below offers readers a view of predicted economic impacts for Scotland of a change in policy.

Those advocating for a change in policy have also argued that the potential asylum seekers have to offer is not realised in the UK. A survey of 246 asylum seekers and refugees conducted in 2018 by Lift the Ban found high rates of education and previous work experience, even amongst those whose countries of origin have very high unemployment rates as a result of war, unrest and other crises.[54] A further skills audit of 283 asylum seekers and refugees conducted in 2020 found that 45% had worked previously in jobs classified as ‘essential’ during COVID restrictions, and 1 in 7 had experience of work in health or social care.[55]

Business leaders and employers have also expressed a view that fewer restrictions to employment for asylum seekers would have a positive effect. A survey of 1000 business leaders conducted by Lift the Ban in 2019 found that 67% were in favour of allowing asylum seekers to work after 6 months. 66% agreed that such a relaxation of restrictions would ease skills shortages, and 64% agreed that it would benefit the UK workforce through diversifying skills. An OECD survey of German employers who have hired asylum seekers and refugees found that more than 80 per cent were broadly or fully satisfied with their work,[56] and a number of Dutch businesses have already helped over 13,000 refugees enter the job market through training, mentorship, direct employment, and other activities.[57] Like the Dutch example, many of the initiatives involving employers target refugees, whose status has already been determined. However, should asylum seekers be allowed access to the labour market, or decisions on asylum claims be made more quickly, then there is arguably no reason why these initiatives cannot engage many of the same people earlier on in their journey towards finding work.

Qualitative studies engaging more directly with the lived experiences of asylum seekers have also highlighted their frustration at being denied an opportunity either to support themselves or to make a positive economic and social contribution through working. Many have expressed a strong desire to use their skills and experience for the benefit of their new host communities sometimes emphasising their match to essential jobs and areas with skills shortages.[58]

You can do so much in life, you can offer a lot, you know, to the world. You can do a lot but you can’t, because your hands are tied. You can’t do anything… The waiting kills you inside. It’s like a mental torture. Thinking you cannot do anything... You are alive but you’re not alive at the same time.[59]

With all my skills and education in public health, I cannot get a job in the UK in the middle of a pandemic. Because I am an asylum seeker … I could have been doing something positive for people’s health by putting my knowledge and expertise into practice. Giving asylum seekers the right to work benefits the government, too. It will have a bigger workforce to actively contribute to the development and economy of the country, and the person seeking asylum can also gain the financial autonomy that enables them to support themselves and their families.[60]

These potential contributions are potentially particularly significant in the context of a rapidly ageing Europe that faces increased longevity and shrinking birth rates. According to the European Commission's projections, the European labour force (aged 20-64 years) is expected to decline by 8.2 per cent (or by around 19 million people) between 2023 and 2060.[61] The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this phenomenon, with an increase in excess mortality and a decrease in life expectancy across many Member States.[62] A shrinking working age population will have to sustain aspects of the welfare state that are already under growing pressure, such as pension and healthcare services, as well as more severe labour and skill shortages. While the share of asylum seekers legally residing in the EU may not be high,[63] they tend to be younger and more mobile than EU nationals.[64]

In Scotland there are also concerns about population ageing and decline. Scotland’s population is currently projected to peak at 5.53 million around 2033 beginning to fall thereafter. This decrease is due primarily to lower birth rates and children below 16 years of age are the group predicted to decline most sharply in number from 901,200 in mid-2022 to 739,200 by mid-2045 – a decline of 18%. The working age population (those aged 16-64) is projected to decrease only very slightly over the same period, by 10,000 people.[65] Nonetheless, this is a more significant decline than elsewhere in the UK where the working age population will continue to grow. Moreover, population ageing and decline is uneven across Scotland with some areas of the country much more affected than others.[66]

In the wider international context, the UK is increasingly an outlier as many other countries have already recognised the potential contributions that asylum seekers and refugees can make.[67] The Canadian government, which has almost no restrictions on the right to work for asylum seekers, has deliberately leveraged international migration to counter its ageing population and fulfil employment needs across the country. In 2022, asylum claimants, along with those on work or study permits, were the lead contributors to Canada’s record population growth, with international migration accounting for nearly all that growth (95.9 per cent). This is not to say that there haven’t been challenges associated with this growth, but it has made Canada a world leader amongst G7 countries for population growth.[68] Portugal too, with its long history of emigration, one of the fastest declining populations in Europe, a historically low birth rate, and an old-age dependence ratio that is set to top the EU by 2050, has promoted immigration as a way of addressing its demographic crisis.[69] In 2022, an amendment to the Asylum Act meant that asylum seekers in Portugal could work from the moment of their asylum application. They face no geographical, sectoral or occupational restrictions in the labour market and benefit from the same conditions of employment as nationals, including those relating to salaries and working hours.[70]

Each of the eight countries considered as part of this study have considered how humanitarian protection routes might also help address economic and demographic needs, even if their attempts to implement this have not always worked. Australia’s Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) were introduced in 2014 to channel asylum seekers into industries and locations in the Australian labour market that had a shortage of workers.[71] And as far back as 2008, Sweden’s labour reforms were motivated primarily by a need to meet labour and skills shortages. These included a change which allowed refused asylum seekers to switch tracks to a labour migrant visa route if they could demonstrate that their skills and experience were needed in Sweden.[72]

2.2 Improved integration outcomes

Those arguing in favour of a change in policy have consistently noted the potential for improved integration outcomes and evidence of a longer-term detrimental impact caused by lengthy exclusion from the labour force. In its 2021 report the Migration Advisory Committee cites international evidence that extended periods without the right to work have a lasting negative impact on employment rates for refugees once their asylum claims are decided. [73] This is of particular importance given that significant numbers of asylum seekers are eventually granted refugee status or other leave to remain in the UK. Delays and barriers to their integration during their, sometimes prolonged, wait for a decision on their asylum claims could have lasting repercussions for wider social indicators of equality, inclusion and social cohesion.

The most recently available home office statistics show that, where there is a known final outcome, the final grant rate for asylum claims in each of the last ten years for which data is available has been between 50% and 77%.

Figure 2: Outcomes of Asylum Applications: Grant Rate at initial and final decisions[74]
outcomes of asylum applications, comparing grant rate at initial and final decision

Once refugee status is granted, the UK Government and broader public consensus supports the need for rapid and successful integration of refugees, and that employment is a central pillar of this.[75] Where asylum seekers have experienced a prolonged enforced absence from the labour market, this process necessarily begins from a more difficult starting point.[76] This has repercussions for individuals, as explored in the following section. It also brings economic costs: refugees struggling to enter the labour market or to progress to better paid employment are vulnerable to exploitation and likely to continue to need publicly funded support and benefits over a longer period. Where this leads to entrenched inequalities in the longer term it may result in social tension, undermining more successful models of two-way integration.[77]

One study, which assessed nearly 30 years’ worth of data from nineteen European countries, found that asylum seekers who were banned from working ended up in worse quality jobs once they received permission to work. They also reported lower language proficiency and were more likely to receive benefits. The same study found that exposure to a ban on arrival reduces employment probability in post-ban years by 15 per cent, an impact driven primarily by lower labour market participation. Moreover, these effects were found to be non-linear in ban length, confirming that the very first months following arrival play a key role in shaping integration prospects and last up to ten years post arrival.[78]

Germany’s response to the 2015/16 large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers to Europe is a good example of where early access to the labour market, along with supportive integration measures, can lead to successful integration. Germany was the only country to suspend the Dublin agreement and take in over one million asylum seekers during this time. 75 per cent were younger than 40 and most had higher levels of education than other migrants. German policymakers introduced a series of regulations to improve the speed and efficiency of asylum procedures while also providing a range of integration courses. Asylum seekers from countries with high protection rates were able to start integration courses before receiving a decision on their application. By 2018, 72 per cent of asylum seekers had been granted protection in Germany, gaining the right to work without restrictions,[79] and the integration courses, coupled with available language support, were a key contributing factor to the resulting high employment rates amongst this group.[80] An impressive 49 per cent of those who came since 2013 were able to find steady employment within five years of arriving.[81]

Attitudinal research has suggested that the British public is aware of the relationship between a right to work and improved employment and integration outcomes. In 2018, the National Conversation on Immigration, a public consultation on immigration and integration undertaken by British Future and Hope not Hate, included a survey of 3,677 people. This found that 71% agreed 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’. Only 8% disagreed. In 60 citizens’ panel discussions conducted alongside the survey in cities and towns across the UK, participants linked this support for the right to work to both economic and social integration outcomes. They viewed work as an important point of contact and a means to breaking down barriers and mutual misunderstandings between diverse groups.[82]

2.3 Improved health and well-being and reduced potential exploitation for asylum seekers

A final set of arguments that have been advanced in favour of change, focus on the consequences of the current policy for asylum-seekers’ mental and physical health. Studies with asylum seekers have found that the stress and anxiety experienced by those waiting for longer periods for an outcome of their claim is exacerbated by their exclusion from the workforce.[83] The longer this period lasts the greater the risk of extreme poverty and destitution both for main applicants and for any adult dependants or children accompanying them.[84] Lengthy experiences of deprivation, combined with the uncertainties of awaiting a decision, can take a considerable toll on mental and physical health. Survey research into mental health disorders amongst asylum seekers in Australia concluded that lack of employment was one of the most significant factors, doubling the likelihood of a person developing a major depressive disorder.[85] Another study which looked at the impact of employment restrictions found that those asylum seekers who were banned from working had more health problems.[86]

Qualitative research exploring asylum seekers’ lived experiences in the UK has highlighted similar concerns. In interviews conducted by Refugee Action for their 2020 report ‘Waiting in the Dark’, asylum seekers described the period as one of limbo, and ‘like prison’. Depression, shame and anxiety were described as the outcomes of forced inactivity which denied them dignity and social connections, as well as the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families.

We should at least have the right to set up our life, to work while we wait. If I am allowed to work, it would help me a lot. It would also help me integrate better. … I could do so much. This would make me proud of myself and it would help me a lot. It would help me support my kids and mum. I would help feed them.[87]

Examples and case studies, as well as survey findings, presented by Lift the Ban in their 2020 report demonstrate that work is central to asylum seekers’ attempts to rebuild their lives. Beyond economic autonomy and security, work can act as a gateway to other aspects of well-being and integration including, a sense of purpose and belonging, opportunities to make social connections, the chance to contribute socially and economically through appropriate use of existing skills and development of new ones, improved physical and mental health.[88] The benefits of working for asylum seekers are therefore argued to be complementary to and interact with the wider economic and social benefits outlined earlier in this section.

Simply extending a formal right to work may be insufficient however, to improve the well-being of many asylum seekers. Indeed, the benefits of granting access to work can be significantly undermined by long waiting times for work permits and delays in processing claims and determining status. The uncertainties and insecurities associated with prolonged waiting periods interrupt access to services, create difficulties in establishing stable housing, and have long-term repercussions for employment outcomes as can be seen clearly across most countries that are dealing with the recent rise in global displacement. In Canada, which had 199,548 claims still pending in August 2023,[89] delays have been shown to interrupt education, careers and career-building, resulting in substantial periods of unemployment[90] as well as atrophy of a person’s skills.[91] In Belgium, the recent crisis in reception facilities caused by a backlog of cases and increasing numbers seeking protection, has restricted asylum seekers’ access to health care and led to a deteriorating medical situation among those who are destitute. In the US, long delays to processing claims has impeded the general health and wellbeing of asylum seekers while depriving them of access to key support services. These delays have tended to push asylum seekers into the underground economy where they are vulnerable to deportation and exploitation. Backlogs and delays can also cause prolonged separation of families and make it more difficult to retain pro bono legal representation.[92] To be successful therefore, a scheme providing improved access to employment for asylum seekers would need to meaningfully confront other challenges and barriers to their well-being and particularly those associated with their access to suitably secure and properly paid employment. Chapter 4 of this report explores these and other risks associated with a change of policy in more detail.



Back to top