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.

6. Key Considerations and Learning points

This report has reviewed evidence from existing UK and international reports regarding the often severely negative impacts of exclusion from the labour market for asylum seekers’ well-being, as well as on integration outcomes in both the longer and more immediate term. We have also considered the possibility that countries which allow earlier access to their labour markets in fact benefit from the economic and demographic contributions of those who migrate for protection reasons. The original analysis of potential economic impacts for Scotland of a change in policy, support the view that asylum seekers could potentially make a modest economic contribution were the ban on work to be lifted.

The analysis by NIESR suggests that granting the right to work to people seeking asylum in Scotland would add £30 million per year on average to the Scottish economy if granted immediately on arrival, or £16 million per year if granted after a six-month waiting period. These figures are based on a calculation of increased revenues and reduced costs. Increased revenues from income tax and national insurance would have a direct impact on the UK economy leading to indirect positive consequences for the Scottish economy, whilst increased council tax would be paid directly to those Scottish local authorities hosting working asylum seekers. Reduced costs would come from working asylum seekers no longer requiring support through the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). The calculations have had to be made using a range of assumptions due to the lack of accurate data on skills profiles of asylum seekers or reliable quantitative evidence regarding their likely labour force participation rates. Calculations are therefore based on an assumption that asylum seekers would enter the labour market with the same range of salaries and the same success in finding work as other UK residents moving from benefits to employment. This modelling includes asylum seekers who enter the labour market and no longer need support via S4/95/98, and the continuation of the status quo for other asylum seekers not entering the labour market, even if they have the right to work. However, it has not been possible in the scope of this report to quantify the likely costs of the various employability services and additional safety nets proposed below, which we deem important to the success of a change in policy. These would necessarily offset some of the fiscal gains.

The consequences of restricting the right to work policy to only shortage occupations (as is the current UK Government policy), also requires consideration. There is no evidence from the countries examined in the appendix to support such an approach. The only country to have tried this approach with regard to asylum seekers is Australia, where it has proven ill-conceived with no clear benefits to either the sectors involved or the asylum seekers themselves. The policy has since been scrapped by the Australian government.

Taken together this evidence suggests a clear case for reconsidering current restrictions.

And yet, our extensive appendix, which offers learning from the experiences of 8 countries, with a wide range of approaches both to restrictions and their easing and to the provision of support for asylum seekers, demonstrates that there are no easy answers. The consequences of providing asylum seekers with a right to work at whichever point in their application process, are deeply enmeshed with questions surrounding their access to other forms of support – monetary, accommodation, healthcare, integration and employability services – as well as with wider rhetoric and principles which underpin national policies governing asylum, migration, social security and employment.

This report has shown clear evidence of the considerable challenges and barriers to successful employment which persist for asylum seekers even where less restrictive policies are in place. Given the uncertainties and insecurities surrounding their status, their financial vulnerability and minimal access to wider support, their needs for language learning and employability support, as well as the extent of structural barriers and discrimination they are likely to face on entering the labour force, careful consideration and deliberate remedy is required. Without this a lifting of restrictions will likely result in minimal change for most asylum seekers who will not anyway be able to gain employment and expose those who do to high risks of exploitation and continued poverty.

With this in mind, we close our report by drawing attention to six key learning points which should be carefully considered if a change of policy is proposed:

1. Identify where the powers, capacity and experience lie to support a proposed change.

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. Scotland’s local authorities, third and public sector service providers, employers and communities have gained considerable experience in recent years, providing employability services and English language classes for both refugees and people arriving through resettlement schemes and complementary visa pathways. This could provide a foundation for the development of a distinctive approach to employability support in the context of an extended right to work. Careful thought needs to be given to how existing 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 if a pilot scheme to allow asylum seekers to work were to be proposed.

2. Create a clear and simplified system with guidance for employers and employees.

The often-prolonged uncertainty of asylum seekers’ status, and the risks for both employers and employees associated with non-compliance (deliberate or accidental) with complex rules surrounding restricted working can act as disincentives to well-intentioned employers, as well as increase asylum seekers’ vulnerability to exploitation. A regionally differentiated system could introduce a further layer of complexity and potential confusion for both employers and asylum seekers. A Scottish pilot scheme would need to lay out very precisely the geographical boundaries on which it would operate. Would there be a requirement for example 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. Involving trade unions as strategic partners in conversations around the development of a pilot scheme would be beneficial in this regard.

3. Ensure increased employability for asylum seekers is supported through tailored services, integration into mainstream support and by tackling structural barriers, inequalities and discrimination.

In addition to the development of services to support asylum seekers into work, wider impediments including existing inequalities within the labour force, structural barriers and discrimination by employers and employment agencies would need to be tackled.[174] This is especially important as focusing exclusively on individual capacity building and training for employability can simply raise expectations and increase frustrations. Moreover, asylum seekers would be especially vulnerable to exploitation if structural barriers remain unchallenged.[175] While barriers such as hostile policy rhetoric at the national level may be harder to change, potential interventions which may reduce these risks could include working with employers and policymakers to challenge discriminatory or other poor practices, raising awareness of asylum seekers’ rights and potential to contribute, and addressing structural barriers in the labour market.

4. Prevent in-work poverty, homelessness, and loss of access to financial support/housing.

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, particularly where asylum seekers might find employment in low-paid and/or insecure work. How would asylum seekers who had taken up a job but been unable to sustain their employment be supported in any interim period before National Asylum Support Service payments and asylum accommodation might be reinstated? What structures would be in place to support asylum seekers should they fall into rent arrears or other financial difficulties due to low wages?

Evidence from international case studies shows that wider support measures, including subsistence payments and access to employment and training 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. Several countries provide an allowable earned income before imposing a reduction in benefits or loss of accommodation. This offers some protection against the ‘cliff edge’ prospect of losing all support immediately. A Scottish pilot should consider what kinds of support would be available, or whether some form of staggered or top-up payment could boost the incomes of low-paid workers and ease the transition into work. Such measures already feature to some extent in the UK benefits system, either in the form of allowable income before tax and before benefit reductions, or tax credits for low-income households. Consideration might be given to extending these to asylum seekers who are particularly vulnerable to low pay and poverty.

The gendered nature of the asylum process results in a higher proportion of women being designated dependants rather than primary applicants in family asylum claims. To avoid a further gendered inequality consideration could be given to extending the right to work to family members, as is the case in Canada. This would have further benefits of increasing potential incomes to asylum seeker households and reducing women’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation and gender-based violence.

5. Include the appropriate range of stakeholders in designing policy, learn from existing experience and ensure that responsibilities for implementation are properly resourced.

Local authorities and third sector partners already play a central role in supporting asylum seekers. Many have gathered considerable recent experience of providing support, including employability and language learning services, to refugees and to people who have arrived through resettlement schemes and complementary visa routes. This could form a starting point for developing place-based approaches to support asylum seekers into work, flexible enough to take account of the diversity of Scotland’s local labour market conditions and the uneven spread of existing services and third sector specialist organisations.

The challenges of supporting effective and coherent approaches and the considerable burden placed on local authorities at a time of budget constraints and high demand for services from other parts of the population should not be underestimated. Experience from the US, Canada, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all illustrate how easily already-overstretched public services can fail to meet the increased need that comes with greater numbers of asylum seekers. Local authorities will need additional capacity (financial, human resource and expertise) if support for asylum seekers to enter the labour market is to be added to their responsibilities. This would need to include financial resource from Scottish Government or the Home Office to expand existing services and support programmes and a framework to facilitate shared learning between places.

Partnership working with third sector providers, volunteers and community-based groups who can offer support for language learning, self-confidence, buddying and other employability support will also be important. This has been evidenced in experiences of welcoming and supporting the integration (including labour market integration) of people who have arrived in the UK through resettlement programmes and complementary visa routes, as well as in the German example presented in the appendix.

Asylum seekers are likely to face considerable challenges even if they are able to secure employment and employers themselves will have to overcome (or accept) a variety of barriers and risks to employing people with inherently insecure status. At the same time, employers have a crucial role to play in ensuring that asylum seekers with the right to work receive appropriate training and support to enter, thrive in and progress through the workplace. It would be essential therefore to involve employers directly as stakeholders in discussions surrounding the design of any proposed pilot scheme extending asylum seekers’ right to work.

6. Right to work should provide pathways to settlement and mitigate the risks around temporary status

The recent rise in global displacement and the arrival of greater numbers of asylum seekers in some countries has tested the limits of their reception and integration policies and infrastructure (USA, Canda, Belgium, and the Netherlands, for example). As a result, there has been a tendency across many countries in recent years to replace pathways to permanent settlement (residency, citizenship, more secure work status) with greater conditionality and/or more temporary work visas.

However, evidence from nearly all the countries examined in the appendix shows that long periods of uncertainty around asylum status, arising either from backlogs, the issuing and renewing of temporary work visas, or other restrictive conditions, yield poor outcomes for all, not least asylum seekers themselves. The cautionary lesson from Australia is that the move towards ‘permanently temporary migration’ has caused harm, created second-class citizens of many asylum seekers, and weakened social cohesion.[176]

The New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy has a stated vision to support all refugees and asylum seekers regardless of their route to arrival ‘to rebuild their lives from the day they arrive’.[177] Making this a reality for asylum seekers could involve extending the support, rights and entitlements that are currently on offer to refugees to asylum seekers in order to speed up their integration. This would be in line with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommendation to lower barriers and ease restrictions to work eligibility during the asylum processing phase,[178] as Germany did with notable success after the arrival of asylum seekers in 2015/16, implementing a series of early interventions to speed up their integration. With particularly long waiting times for the processing of asylum claims in the UK at present – an issue over which Scotland has little control - providing such support during this period would help put asylum seekers on a clearer pathway to integration and settlement.

Arguably, there is a trade-off between what the evidence shows (that early interventions facilitate the quicker integration of asylum seekers), and the reluctance of many governments and regional authorities to invest in asylum seekers who may eventually have their claim refused, or who may wish to invest in supporting asylum seekers but face competing investment priorities.

However, the international evidence serves as a reminder that not facilitating access to work and wider settlement in the community still ‘costs’ governments, not just in terms of economic inactivity, but also in terms of wasted human capital, the wellbeing of asylum seekers themselves, and the additional costs of supporting these individuals while their status is waiting to be resolved. Countries like Sweden, the US and Canada, grant comparatively 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.’



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