4. Challenges and barriers to successful employment for asylum seekers
There is very little data available on the numbers, profile or experiences of asylum seekers taking up the right to work in the UK under current restrictions. The Home Office has not been able to provide data on the numbers granted permission to work after 12 months. Third sector organisations working directly with people seeking asylum report that numbers are low, and those who go on to find work in jobs on the SOL fewer still. A survey of 246 asylum seekers conducted in 2018 by Lift the Ban, found that although 94% said they would like to work, only 36 individuals had applied for permission to work. Permission had been granted to 8, of whom only 2 had been able to find work.
It is worthy of note that changes to the SOL since 2018 have expanded the range of jobs potentially available to asylum seekers. These changes would have no impact on the low numbers granted permission to work but could increase the likelihood of finding a job for those to whom permission is granted. The current SOL includes a range of professional jobs such as engineers, maths/science teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. An asylum seeker wishing to apply for any of these roles would need to have relevant recognised qualifications and experience. A change to the SOL in February 2022 added care workers and home carers to the list. For these roles training may be provided on the job and there is not always a requirement for prior qualifications. The SOL does therefore offer jobs which are likely to be suited to the skills and experience of some asylum seekers, however for most jobs they would still require to hold recognised qualifications. There is limited evidence as to how recruitment of potentially larger numbers of asylum seekers, for example to jobs in health and social care, might work since few countries have restricted asylum seekers to specific shortage occupations or sectors. From one country that did try to fill labour shortages in specific sectors through the humanitarian route (Sweden), the lesson that emerges is the need for adequate protections to be in place to ensure that workers in low paid, low-skilled sectors are not left open to exploitation.
This chapter explores the considerable barriers which both asylum seekers as potential employees and their potential employers face even where permission to work is granted. Given the extent of these challenges and the important role that employers can play in ensuring that asylum seekers with the right to work receive appropriate training and support in the workplace, it would be beneficial to involve employers directly as stakeholders in discussions surrounding the design of any proposed pilot scheme extending asylum seekers’ right to work.
4.1 Impacts on access to income support and accommodation
Asylum seekers considering an application for permission to work may be given pause by the potential consequences for their existing package of support, including access to accommodation. Under existing regulations in the UK, those who do gain permission to work after 12 months and are successful in finding a job on the SOL are likely to lose most - if not all - of their entitlements to National Asylum Support Service (NASS) support. A recent asylum support briefing from ‘Right to Remain’ provides the following advice for asylum seekers seeking permission to work:
If you receive permission to work, this will not affect your asylum support. However, if you start working and have an income … you will have a legal duty to notify the Home Office of this. The Home Office will then review your situation to see whether or not you are still considered ‘destitute’. The outcome of this will depend on your specific situation. … If your income is less than your weekly asylum support subsistence (less than £47.39 per week), the amount of subsistence will likely be reduced but not stopped. If your income is more than your weekly asylum support subsistence (more than £47.39 per week), then the Home Office will likely stop giving you the weekly subsistence because you would no longer meet the destitution requirement. ... In this situation, if you receive both weekly subsistence and asylum accommodation, and it is clear that your income is more than the weekly subsistence but not enough to pay for private accommodation, the Home Office may stop your weekly subsistence and ask you to pay some contribution for your asylum accommodation instead of expecting you to move out.
It is not clear from this advice how, or how quickly, an asylum seeker who had found work and had their NASS stopped would be able to reinstate it were they to lose their job, or be unable to continue working, for whatever reason. Some aspects of the decision-making, particularly around accommodation, are also clearly at the discretion of the Home Office and there is no evidence of any safety net, for example for working asylum seekers who lose their asylum accommodation and find themselves unable to afford suitable private accommodation.
A No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition is linked to the right to work for asylum seekers. This means that those in employment, even where this is low paid, do not have any right to housing assistance or most other social security benefits. The Home Office has countered claims that allowing asylum seekers to work would bring fiscal benefits, arguing that any employment asylum seekers would secure is likely to be close to the minimum wage. In the current economic climate it seems reasonable to suggest that asylum seekers receiving minimum wage, potentially working on insecure or variable hours contracts (e.g. in social care), and with no recourse to public funds, would experience considerable poverty, especially if they also have to pay for private accommodation. As other work in the field of forced migration and vulnerability to poverty and exploitation has shown, such experiences are often significantly gendered, with women put at greater risk of sexual exploitation and gender-based violence.
A pilot offering the right to work to asylum seekers in Scotland would need to consider the potential vulnerabilities and insecurities that the loss of accommodation and other support might bring. How would asylum seekers who had taken up a job but been unable to sustain their employment be supported in any interim period before NASS support and asylum accommodation might be reinstated? What structures would be in place to support asylum seekers should they fall into rent arrears or other difficulties due to low wages?
All of the eight countries examined in the appendix offered some kind of financial support to asylum seekers whilst their claims were being processed. These were all more generous than NASS support, although in Australia, cuts and restrictions have led to increasing cases of homelessness and poverty. Each of the other seven countries had in place not just easier access to the labour market than the UK, but also wider support measures, including some form of medical provision, subsistence payments and access to employment and training support. These not only facilitate asylum seekers’ entry to the labour market but can also support them during a transition period where they are looking for employment or establishing themselves as financially independent on a more stable basis. In Quebec, Canada, for example, while waiting for a decision on their asylum application, asylum seekers can access: temporary shelter; assistance in finding permanent housing; free information sessions on life in Quebec; last resort financial assistance; preschool, elementary and secondary school education; non-subsidised childcare services; universal employment services; French courses; legal aid and social services.
There are also examples of where income can be earned without it affecting benefit levels. This helps to ease the transition to work, while also guarding against low incomes and in-work poverty. In Quebec, where the basic benefit available to asylum seekers is $725 per month for an adult, an additional $200 per adult may be earned without reducing the benefit amount, meaning that asylum seekers can take up work without facing an immediate reduction in their financial assistance. This is the same allowable work income that is also applied to Canadians on the Social Assistance Program, which is aimed at those who have a severely limited capacity for employment. In Germany, the monthly rate for a single adult asylum seeker is €410 and €369 for a single adult in an accommodation centre. Asylum seekers may also receive up to €200 if they take up some types of voluntary work without it affecting these benefits.
A scheme to extend the right to work to asylum seekers in Scotland might consider providing a similar allowable earned income before the loss of benefits or accommodation to offer some protection against the ‘cliff edge’ prospect of losing all support immediately. The UK benefits system, in its current form, already makes some provision for this for UK citizens. UK citizens are permitted to earn no more than £167 per week, after tax, while still retaining their benefits. Alternatively, some form of staggered or top-up payment could boost the incomes of low paid workers and ease the transition into work, similar to the current system of tax credits for UK households on low incomes. These measures offer some degree of protection for low-income households in the UK and so it would make sense to consider extending these measures to asylum seekers, who are particularly vulnerable to low paid work and the risk of poverty. Where further measures which would benefit all vulnerable workers on low incomes who are at risk of poverty are identified, these could also be extended to working Asylum seekers.
4.2 Risk and Uncertainty for both employers and asylum seekers
A survation poll of 1,006 Business leaders conducted in 2019 for Refugee Action and the Lift the Ban coalition found 66% would consider hiring someone seeking asylum for a vacancy in their business. However, the complexity and multiple restrictions surrounding permission to work for asylum seekers in the UK introduce an administrative burden and an element of risk for both job seekers and employers. This is compounded by the increasingly punitive UK system and ‘hostile environment’ policies which have included criminalising both employers and employees if right to work checks are found not to have been properly conducted.
Qualitative research with asylum seekers who have been granted permission to work has found confusion around which jobs may be applied for. A refugee interviewed in research for Lift the Ban, recalled his experience of seeking employment after having been granted permission to work 12-months into his asylum claim:
I was over the moon when I got my permission to work. I was so happy. I started ringing recruitment offices and started looking for work. But then I got an interview and I got a job in retail again and the employer called me to say that they rang the Home Office and they declined the permission to work because I am not allowed to work in retail.
In this case the confusion was resolved by a call to the Home Office, and the asylum seeker was left without employment. Had the employer failed to check however, both could have faced fines or even imprisonment.
Earlier studies with refugees have noted that fines and other penalties for employers hiring people without the correct documentation create reluctance to consider applications from refugees. The consequences of hostile environment policies for other groups whose status is complex or uncertain, and the potential for employers and others (landlords, statutory service providers, health services) to discriminate in order to avoid risk have been amply demonstrated, not least by the Windrush scandal. A recent report has highlighted how the current employer-sponsored visa system in the UK forces vulnerable migrants to accept exploitative work conditions from their UK sponsors due to the short timeframe, high cost, and administrative difficulty involved in changing jobs. These risks, it shows, are amplified by the UK’s under-resourced and fragmented labour enforcement system.
Beyond these immediate administrative risks, the uncertainties of asylum seekers’ everyday lives, their immediate and longer-term futures, create disincentives for employers. Asylum seekers are constrained to comply with Home Office requirements in ways which do not apply to other employees. They may be required to attend at a Home Office reporting centre at regular intervals or at short notice. If their claim is refused, they may be detained or required to leave the country, again with little notice. Even if their claim is accepted and they are granted leave to remain this may be for a limited period only. Each of these restrictions and uncertainties create potential difficulties for asylum seekers in meeting the expectations of their employers and requirements of their employment. They may also create strong disincentives for employers, especially those with longer-term or permanent contracts to offer, or with jobs that require investment in training and career progression of an employee. Consequently, asylum seekers are likely to be exposed to higher risks of exploitation and precarity within the labour market.
These issues are not unique to the UK. In the Netherlands, despite legislation which permits asylum seekers easier access to work than the UK currently does, it is very hard for them to find work in practice. Employers are not eager to hire an asylum seeker due to the assumed administrative hurdles and because of the limited time they may be employed for. Similarly, in Australia, some employers refuse to hire asylum seekers on temporary visas because of the uncertainty around their status, leading to wasted human capital and financial stress. A study of refugees and asylum seekers as workers in Australia found that the profound uncertainty of visa status, duration and application outcomes; the operation of non-refoulement; their lack of social protection; the permanent threat of visa cancellation; the possibility of unauthorised work; and the broader radical institutional exclusion experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in Australia today all contribute to their increased vulnerability. The Refugee Council of Australia has highlighted the temporary nature of bridging visas as one of the key causes of workplace exploitation for people seeking asylum. A recent review of the Australian migration system identified temporary status and visa conditions as being two out of three main factors driving vulnerability to exploitation. The review found clear evidence of systemic exploitation including underpayment for work, health and safety breaches, and unfair dismissal, with asylum seekers reluctant to challenge these conditions because of the threat of potential deportation and visa cancellation. The authors conclude that this creates the risk of an emerging permanently temporary underclass made up of asylum seekers who have been working in Australia for long enough to integrate into the community, but are prevented from doing so by their permanently temporary status. In recognition of this, in February 2023, the Australian Government cleared the way for some 20,000 asylum seekers on temporary visas to apply for permanency.
This set of risk factors and barriers create additional concerns that a pilot to offer enhanced rights to work for asylum seekers in Scotland would need to consider carefully. A regionally differentiated system would introduce a further layer of complexity and potential confusion for both employers and asylum seekers. The pilot would need to lay out very precisely the geographical boundaries on which it would operate. Would there be a requirement that the asylum seeker’s place of residence, the registered employer and the job itself all be located (solely) in Scotland? The structure of Scotland’s business landscape with its higher percentage of small and medium sized employers should also be considered. Administrative burdens and risks associated with uncertainty can be more difficult for smaller employers to absorb and tailored support and information for employers may be necessary if a pilot is to succeed. Alongside this checks and support systems would need to be in place to prevent exploitation and support working asylum seekers to understand their rights as employees.
4.3 Impacts of Trauma and Distance from the Labour Market
Asylum seekers may also face barriers to applying for permission to work, and struggle to successfully find appropriate employment once granted permission, because of their previous experiences of trauma (both physical and psychological), poor health and prolonged absence from the labour market. Dispersal policies and periods in detention may on the one hand have moved people away from social networks that might otherwise facilitate access to jobs, whilst limits on asylum seekers’ geographical mobility can make it harder for people to move to take up employment where it is available. The New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy notes barriers for refugees, all of which would impact asylum seekers, including: low self-confidence, anxiety, unfamiliarity with the UK labour market, difficulties with getting prior qualifications or experience recognised, lower English language competence, and difficulties obtaining references. These barriers can make it particularly difficult for refugees or asylum seekers to find ‘meaningful’ employment, rather than just taking ‘any job’.
This suggests that considerable tailored support would be required in order for people to successfully re-enter the labour market. Even where resettlement schemes have offered immediate access to the labour market, often combined with bespoke packages of support for language learning and employability, people have nonetheless struggled to find jobs. Of all comparable schemes Homes for Ukraine, has the highest employment rate at 32%. Reported barriers for both Syrian and Ukrainian resettlement schemes include language issues, lack of recognition of qualifications, absence of transport and childcare.
4.4 Discrimination and Structural Barriers
In addition to the specific barriers discussed above, asylum seekers entering the labour market would likely be exposed to the same barriers and inequalities that have been reported in relation to employment experiences of refugees and other migrants. Intersecting factors including age, gender, race, religion, English language skills, education and qualifications, training, length of residence, and region of residence have all been shown to impact on refugees’ employment. Refugees, as well as other groups of migrant workers, have been found to experience significant underemployment, often working in low-paid secondary employment rather than in professional jobs matching their education levels, and with earnings considerably lowered as a result.
Employment disadvantages which have been documented as affecting minority ethnic workers based on religion or race, including pay gaps, lower rates of recruitment, retention, and progression, and higher exposure to precarity and exploitation would likely impact on asylum seekers who share these characteristics. Similarly, known barriers which refugee women face when seeking employment would also likely affect women asylum seekers. These include issues linked to trauma, experiences of gender-based violence, lower levels of education and previous employment experience, domestic responsibilities and burdens, and family opposition to education/employment. Furthermore, since women are less likely than men to be the primary applicant in family asylum claims, they are currently more likely to be completely excluded from any opportunity to apply for the right to work regardless of how long they have been awaiting a decision on their claim. To rectify this gender imbalance a pilot could be extended to include adult dependants of asylum applicants.
Existing studies of employability for refugees and asylum seekers have highlighted the extent of structural barriers, including racism, as well as the impacts of wider policies and systems affecting asylum seekers lives – constant monitoring, experiences of dispersal, risk of detention and removal. All of the eight countries examined as part of this study had more liberal right to work schemes than the UK, and yet structural barriers to and within the labour market still persisted long after labour market entry. Sweden has a big gap in employment rates between foreign and native-born populations, even though the gap has been shown to narrow over time. In Belgium, structural barriers include provisional and precarious residence status, disparities in healthcare, the fact that foreign diplomats are not considered equivalent to national diplomas, and labour market discrimination.
Immigration systems and policies that prioritise managed migration, border security and the ‘criminalisation’ of ‘illegal’ migration can also work as structural barriers to employability. Putting in place policies, laws and procedures that are often then successfully challenged in the courts, but which in the meantime create a hostile environment in which asylum seekers find it harder to integrate, undermine their settlement and heighten mistrust in the public’s perception of the Government’s ability to manage migration. How a government treats immigrants, through its rhetoric and policies, has been shown to strongly influence how immigrants and the public interact with and think of each other. Key findings from the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) conclude that restrictive policies create a ‘vicious circle’ of exclusion that reinforces fear and separation, while inclusive policies not only increase positive attitudes and interactions between the public and immigrants, but also create an overall sense of belonging, well-being and trust. Australia’s experience with irregular maritime arrivals demonstrate how easily media outlets and politicians can stoke disproportionate fear about uncontrolled entries for political gain. This has been evident in the UK and also in the Netherlands, where broader pressures in housing, health and other services, have been causally linked to asylum seekers in the political discourse, and have contributed to the 2023 general election win by far-right politician Geert Wilders.
Above all, however, Australia’s experience highlights how ineffective such policies and accompanying political rhetoric can be in understanding and addressing the complex push factors that compel people to leave their homes. This is evident in the UK Government’s recent defeat in the High Court relating to their policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Previous recommendations for policy interventions to support increased employability have argued strongly for a focus on tackling these wider impediments, alongside services for asylum seekers or refugees. It has been made clear that a focus on individual capacity building and training for employability is less helpful if the structural barriers remain, indeed it may simply raise expectations and increase frustrations. While tackling wider barriers, such as hostile policy rhetoric at the national level, may be harder to change, other interventions could include working with employers and policymakers at the regional level to challenge discriminatory or other poor practice, raising awareness, amongst both employers and wider local communities, of asylum seekers’ rights and potential to contribute, and addressing structural barriers in the labour market. This might include a focus on inappropriate or discriminatory interview practices, challenging an over-reliance on online recruitment resources, or inappropriate English language expectations.
A pilot scheme to offer enhanced rights to work for asylum seekers in Scotland would require thought to be given to such wider issues. In the following section we discuss existing support services and initiatives in Scotland, and beyond, which might be relevant to the development of such a pilot scheme.
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