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.

5. Scotland’s capacity to support asylum seekers with the right to work

Whilst the power to determine whether asylum seekers are granted permission to work and in which jobs is retained by the UK Government, the Scottish Government has devolved powers over employability, skills and training, some areas of welfare and equalities. This offers significant levers to influence the implementation of a right to work pilot. Some of these, for example the Fairer Scotland Action Plan which lays out 50 actions to reduce poverty and tackle inequality by 2030, are noted in the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy as policy levers for delivering support to refugees and asylum seekers.[149] However, careful thought needs to be given to how such policy levers could be used to best effect and what balance of integration into mainstream services versus development of specialist and tailored support is required and feasible. Moreover, effective support would need to cut across a wide range of areas and competences including for example Jobcentre Plus and local colleges, universities and training providers in support focused specifically on employability but linking this to support in adjacent but crucial areas such as housing, childcare and access to trauma recovery services[150]. The third sector could assist in a variety of ways and befriending services, buddy schemes in the workplace, one-to-one language support and other initiatives are of great value. However, care should be taken not to overstretch or overreach the capacities of the voluntary sector and this should complement rather than fill gaps in public sector support.

The constantly changing composition of asylum seekers presents a challenge for developing effective support services. Movements of people driven by conflict, crises and persecution are unpredictable. The most affected nationalities and social groups shift over time, sometimes rapidly. This means that the employment related characteristics of asylum seekers potentially requiring support to enter the labour force would be diverse and dynamic.[151] Education and employment experience, English language skills and literacy rates, family sizes, age, gender and cultural norms vary greatly both within and between nationalities. The routes by which people have entered the asylum system, their experiences of fleeing conflict or persecution and the journeys they have taken since leaving their countries, produce varying degrees of physical and psychological trauma impacting on physical and mental health. This all suggests that carefully tailored services, or at very least tailored training and advice to frontline workers in local authorities and mainstream services would be required.[152]

Thought would also need to be given to the diversity of Scotland’s local labour market conditions and to the uneven spread of services and third sector specialist organisations in different parts of Scotland. The majority of specialist services are located in Glasgow, due to its longer history of receiving asylum seekers through the UK dispersal policy. However, resettlement schemes for Syrian vulnerable persons, the Homes for Ukraine scheme and more recent dispersal arrangements have led to the development of support services in other areas and experience of working with refugees across a wider spread of Scottish local authorities. This could form a basis for developing place-based approaches to support with resource and responsibility devolved to local authorities working in partnership with third sector providers.[153]

However, the experience of Homes for Ukraine and other resettlement programmes has demonstrated the challenges of supporting effective shared learning and coherence in approaches, [154] as well as the considerable burden placed on local authorities at a time of budget constraints and high demand for services from other parts of the population. Housing would need to be considered if asylum seekers are to lose their NASS accommodation as a result of taking up work. As the recent problems in the US, Belgium and Canada have shown, high rental prices make it near impossible for many asylum seekers to secure affordable housing, leading to homelessness among many and overstretched shelters and other charitable organisations.

Local authorities would need additional financial resources and the relevant expertise if support for asylum seekers to enter the labour market is to be added to their responsibilities. This should include additional financial resources from Scottish Government or the Home Office to expand existing services and support programmes and a framework to facilitate shared learning between places.

5.1 Employability services

The Scottish Government has a long-term focus on increasing employability within the population as a whole and funds a range of mainstream services, some of which already include work with refugees and might form the basis of expanded services for asylum seekers with the right to work. Skills Development Scotland deliver guidance and employability support for people of all ages across Scotland, including access to modern apprenticeships.[155] This programme is currently open to refugees and people with humanitarian protection status, and there is an equalities action plan for modern apprenticeships in Scotland.[156] Fair Start Scotland, was launched in 2018[157] with the aim of supporting those Scottish residents facing the greatest challenges and multiple barriers to re-enter employment. It is a devolved employment service, offering tailored events and advice, including some work already focused on the needs of refugees, women, and ethnic minorities. The Scottish Government’s Volunteering Support Fund, as well as the independent Voluntary Action Fund, both already work with asylum seekers, who are allowed to undertake unpaid volunteering. This volunteering support could be adapted to include a greater focus on transitions to paid employment if expanded rights to work were granted. For all the above programmes and services thought would need to be given to whether funding, capacity and expertise would allow for expanded work with asylum seekers to be done well.

Scotland also has some existing specialist employability services for refugees, for example the Bridges Programme. These are geographically concentrated in Glasgow and already experience considerable excess demand and precarious or insufficient funding. Expanding and or replicating such specialist support to meet the needs of asylum seekers entering the labour force across a wider range of Scottish locations would require additional resource and co-ordination. Furthermore, the experience of these services demonstrates the need for an intersectional approach which takes account of the specific needs and barriers to employment for women, for LGBT people, or for people with disabilities. Issues regarding accessibility to support services should be mainstreamed and not restricted to services focusing only on these subgroups.[158]

As discussed in earlier sections of this report, asylum seekers would face considerable barriers when entering the labour force and many may need tailored one-to-one support, which is sensitive to diversity of needs in order to overcome these. [159] Work readiness programmes, digital skills training, opportunities for work shadowing, assistance with CVs, and coaching or buddy schemes to help people understand realistic employment aspirations and to integrate into the workforce will all be required. Issues around recognition of qualifications, including clarity around which aspects need to be updated or converted and what re-training is available, are also likely to be significant sticking points.[160] Resource to provide asylum seekers and employers free access to reliable information on this from services such as ECCTIS[161] would be needed.

Portugal has made recent changes to ensure that the skills recognition of foreign qualifications held by those seeking protection is not a further barrier to accessing work, training or education. [162] Following the temporary protection regime put in place for displaced Ukrainians, the Portuguese government has made exempt a number of bureaucratic requirements such as the legalisation of documents issued by foreign entities and certification of copies in order to make recognition of foreign qualifications easier. The law also established that beneficiaries of temporary protection, who hold foreign certificates or diplomas that are not recognised in Portugal, must be ensured access to a higher education institution granting a degree in the same field upon request.[163]

All of the eight countries examined in the appendix provide some limited employability support to asylum seekers. For example, asylum seekers in Sweden can access language training and the public employment service to find work, and the German system permits those with ‘a good prospect to remain’ to access language and civic orientation courses.[164] These measures aim to make the most of the long waiting periods that asylum seekers may experience by allowing participants to settle more quickly into their new life. However, the bulk of more comprehensive employability support is aimed at refugees rather than asylum seekers, even though it is widely recognised that the latter would benefit from the same provision in speeding up their integration. For this reason, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommends lowering barriers and easing restrictions to work eligibility during the asylum processing phase.[165] However, there is an inevitable tension between this and the reluctance of most governments and regional authorities to invest in asylum seekers who may eventually have their claim refused.

The OECD has recommended that, for those with high prospects of being allowed to stay, restrictions should be lifted to facilitate rapid labour market. This is an approach Germany has adopted with considerable success in streamlining and processing its applications. However, fast-tracking applications based on nationality and recognition rates is not without its risks, particularly for those seeking protection from environmental disasters or gender-based persecution for example, who may come from countries that are not on any ‘priority’ list.

Arguably, there is a trade-off between what the evidence shows (early employability support facilitates quicker integration for asylum seekers) and the competing investment priorities of many governments. That said, not facilitating access to work still ‘costs’ governments in terms of wasted human capital, and countries like Sweden, the US and Canada, have granted much quicker access to work for asylum seekers while claims are being processed precisely because they want to utilize their skills and labour while also helping them become ‘self-sufficient.’

5.2 ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision and access to support for language learning

The significance of English language learning for employability and other aspects of refugee integration is well known and has been recognised by the UK Government in the enhanced entitlements and intensive minimum provision (8 hours per week, with funded childcare) stipulated for those coming through resettlement routes.[166] In Scotland, the significance of English language learning has been acknowledged in policy terms, through two consecutive ESOL Strategies for Scotland (2007-2014 and 2015-2020), as well as in the recognition of language as a key aspect of successful settlement in the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy (2018-22). However, a decision not to renew the Scotland ESOL strategy in 2020, but rather to incorporate ESOL into a wider Adult Learning Strategy, has signalled a lack of strategic vision for the sector and a failure to address issues linked to under-resourced, piecemeal, and disjointed provision.[167]

At present levels of provision and access to classes vary greatly across Scotland and involve a wide array of providers including further education colleges, local authorities and third sector organisations. Whilst asylum seekers in Scotland already have access to ESOL classes free of charge, there is ample evidence of excess demand, particularly in Glasgow city and many people are unable to access classes at the required level or for the number of hours they need. Conversely learners in rural areas can be scattered and provision either insufficient, or remote from their place of residence with access further inhibited by limited transport links and childcare options.[168] Providers in Glasgow, Aberdeen city and Edinburgh are more used to working with learners who have arrived through humanitarian protection routes in both bespoke and mixed classes. In other parts of the country provision has, until much more recently, been catering mainly for migrant workers and their families. More recent provision for those on resettlement routes has been mainly in bespoke classes. These have often combined aspects of language learning with wider support for employability and social integration in creative ways, for example with buddy schemes, language cafes and cultural programmes. However, such bespoke provision also brings a risk of fragmentation and the hollowing out of services for other groups without dedicated funding.[169] These trade-offs would need to be given careful consideration in developing ESOL provision to support the needs of asylum seekers with a right to work.

Looking elsewhere, language training has been described as the cornerstone of integration policy in Germany.[170] Germany introduced Integration Courses after the influx of asylum seekers in 2015/16. These provided 600 hours of language training and 100 hours of civic orientation to asylum seekers from origin countries with high recognition rates. When demand increased, the number of available places in the Integration Course was also increased to meet this. The effectiveness of this provision is clear. In a study of asylum seekers who had arrived since 2013, only about one per cent of them declared having good or very good German language skills on arrival. However, a follow up with the same group in 2018, showed that figure had increased to 44 per cent.[171] Free language training is still available.

Evidence shows that participation in language courses at the earliest opportunity pays off. For this reason, the OECD, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the IMF all recommend early engagement in language training. The European Commission suggests this should be within the first three months of arrival.[172]

Evidence from other OECD countries also suggests that vocational language training during employment is one of the most effective forms of language training, albeit expensive. However, a combination of labour shortages across several countries may encourage employers to invest in integrating asylum seekers into jobs in the same way as they are now helping many refugees. For example, many German companies are now implementing ‘dual training’ or their own programmes to ease access to their workplaces for refugees, and Canada is the latest country to announce help for employers to hire skilled refugees in order to address labour shortages.[173]

Speedier decisions and clarity on asylum seekers’ status would greatly help employers who are looking to widen the scope of this investment as a means to address their labour shortages. It would be essential to involve employers directly as stakeholders in discussions surrounding the design of a pilot scheme extending asylum seekers’ right to work and to explore with them opportunities to improve access to language learning and support for training and progression.



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