7. Appendix: International Case Studies
This appendix sets out eight country case studies regarding the right to work for asylum seekers. The purpose of these case studies is to highlight how the right to work has been implemented in different countries, and how it plays out in practice, so that lessons might be extracted for the Scottish context should policy conditions change and asylum seekers in the UK be granted the right to work.
The eight countries have been selected because they offer varying degrees of restrictions on the right to work, varying degrees of support to asylum seekers, and different policy contexts:
- Australia, Canada, Sweden and Portugal (right to work granted almost immediately);
- Germany (right to work after three months);
- Belgium (right to work after four months); and
- USA and Netherlands (right to work after six months)
The information presented in this Appendix is based on the evidence available and correct at the time of writing. However, the dynamic nature of regulations and policymaking in relation to asylum seekers and refugees; the changing ideologies and rhetoric across political parties; and socio-economic and demographic changes make this kind of comparative work, and the task of providing robust evidence, challenging.
That said, at the time of writing, there are some common themes that emerge across these countries that are worth highlighting here. The first is that the drivers of the right to work policies for asylum seekers most commonly include: consideration of international human rights obligations; the facilitation of self-sufficiency among this group; and the need to meet economic and demographic challenges around labour shortages and ageing populations. The second common theme that emerges is that granting the right to work is no panacea. It has many potential benefits, but it also needs to be supported by a wider infrastructure of adequate reception, settlement and integration services, as well as an effort to tackle structural barriers around discrimination and inequality which persistent well into employment and hinder wider integration in the community.
Finally, a common trend across many of these countries has been their reaction to the rise in global displacement. The arrival of greater numbers of asylum seekers has tested the limits of reception and integration policies and infrastructure and has seen pathways to permanent settlement replaced with greater conditionality and/ or temporary work permits. Coupled with backlogs and delays in processing asylum claims, this has left many asylum seekers increasingly vulnerable and unsure about their future as they wait longer for the resolution of their status.
Australia: Almost no restrictions on Right to Work
Australia ranks third among top refugee resettlement countries worldwide and has long boasted of its acceptance of relatively large numbers of refugees, who are identified for resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since World War II, the country has accepted almost one million refugees for resettlement.
A key driver of this has been a commitment to human rights. Like the UK, Australia is party to some of the key international human rights conventions and supports the work of the UNHCR, recognising the central tenet of the Refugee Convention that ‘refugees’ should not be returned to a place where they face persecution. More broadly, Australia is also considered to be a nation of immigration given that its population base and continued growth is built on immigration.
In recent years, however, Australia has become a leading exponent amongst developed countries of offshore processing of people entering or being in Australia without a valid visa. For those who arrive by boat without a valid visa, Australia has a policy of mandatory detention and offshore processing. This has proven controversial and cast a shadow over its reputation as a welcoming country. These polices have been predicated on ‘breaking the business model’ of people smugglers by denying asylum seekers access to Australian territory. They have been enacted by successive governments who have seen electoral advantage in the adoption of restrictive policies, even though historically, the vast majority of those seeking refuge have been found to be people who are owed protection under the Refugee Convention.
Right to work depends on visa status
In Australia, the right to work for asylum seekers is dictated by a person’s visa status. However, most asylum seekers are given a bridging visa until their claim is decided, which often includes the automatic and immediate right to work. In practice, this means that most people seeking asylum have the right to work in Australia, albeit temporarily.
1) Those with a right to work: People who arrive on a valid refugee and humanitarian visa can stay, work and study in Australia permanently. Those who are already in Australia on a valid visa and who wish to seek asylum may also stay, work and study in the country permanently if their application for a Protection visa is successful.
2) Those with no right to work: For those who arrive without a valid visa, Australia has a policy of detention and offshore processing. During this time, you are not permitted to work although you may be eligible for a temporary visa which could grant you a temporary right work for a restricted time period – see below.
3) Restricted right to work: Temporary protection visas (TVPs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) have been issued since 2013 and 2014 respectively. They have been issued to those who arrive without a valid visa and who want to seek asylum; those who are refugees; or those who satisfy Australia’s protection criteria. If eligible, a person can live, work or study in the country for three years under a TVP, or five years under a SHEV, after which time they can reapply.
(Resolution of Status (RoS) visas have replaced TVP and SHEV since February 2023. RoS visas allow for the permanent resolution of status for certain visa holders, including TVP and SHEV holders who arrived in Australia before February 2023. If successful, a RoS visa allows a person to stay and work in Australia permanently and enjoy all rights and entitlements that permanent residents enjoy.
Bridging visas are temporary visas that generally allow a person to stay in the country after their current visa ceases and while their new visa application is being processed. Not all bridging visas allow a person to work, but many do allow access to work until a claim is decided.
The rest of this case study will focus largely on those asylum seekers who fall within the last category (restricted right to work) since those who arrive on refugee and humanitarian visas already have the right to work.
The drivers behind the Right to Work
The population of temporary migrants in Australia has grown in recent years, including those on TVPs, SHEVs and bridging visas. As of October 2022, there were 19,614 people on TVPs or SHEVs that needed to be periodically reviewed.
The drivers behind the right to work policy have been punitive in nature. TVPs provide a temporary right to work and were reintroduced in 2013 in response to the increased numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat between 2009 and 2013. They were designed to discourage future boat arrivals by denying them any prospect of transition to a permanent visa. Although framed as necessary in order to save lives at sea, it was repeatedly stated that “the reintroduction of [TPVs] is a key element of the Government’s border protection strategy to combat people smuggling and to discourage people from making dangerous voyages to Australia.”
As part of political negotiations to get this legislation passed at the time, the SHEV visa was created to accompany TPVs and introduce a pathway to resettlement if asylum seekers lived and worked in regional Australia for three-and-a-half years out of the five-year duration. Moreover, the SHEV visa was designed to channel visa holders into industries and locations in the Australian labour market that had a shortage of workers.
The Right to Work leaves many vulnerable
The right to work in Australia leave many vulnerable to destitution, exploitation and an indefinite future.
Evidence shows that legislative and government policies in Australia have created a temporariness for asylum seekers and refugees that is punitive in design. For example, a key cause of workplace exploitation for people seeking asylum is the lack of work rights and the temporary nature of bridging visas.
A recent review of the Australian migration system identified temporary status and visa conditions as being two out of three main factors driving vulnerability:
“Temporary status means a migrant does not have an ongoing right to stay in Australia and can be subject to visa cancellation and deportation if visa conditions are breached or become ineligible for a further visa if visa settings are changed…. Visa conditions can increase the risk of migrant exploitation by regulatory conditions driving power imbalances between employers and migrants. Restrictions on a visa holder’s ability to change employers and dependence on an employer’s continued support to access the Australian labour market and, perhaps, eventual pathways to permanent residence, limit a migrant worker’s capacity to resist, report or leave exploitive situations.” 
Berg et al (2022) identified distinct vulnerabilities to workplace exploitation experienced by refugees and asylum seekers as a consequence of their immigration status, including: 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.
The scale and extent of exploitation among asylum seekers has not been documented in a systematic way. Nevertheless, available evidence reveals a range of working conditions experienced by asylum seekers that fall short of minimum labour standards in Australia. These include systemic underpayment, work and safety breaches, and unfair dismissal.
Right to work is not a panacea
Asylum seekers who have the right to work continue to face barriers to finding work and increased vulnerability.
As stated above, little is known about the experiences and participation of TPV, SHEV and bridging visa holders. However, the barriers that refugees face are also likely to be in play with asylum seekers. They include a lack of Australian work experience, difficulties in overseas skills and qualifications recognition, and limited English language skills. Similarly, the employment outcomes for temporary protection visa holders are likely to reflect the dominant patterns in employment outcomes for refugees in the initial years of settlement – unemployment, underemployment and loss of occupational status – and may be exacerbated by their temporary status and limited eligibility for support that assists with labour market integration. It is likely that they are also funnelled into low paid, low skilled jobs, regardless of their human capital.
The temporary nature and future uncertainty around a prospective employee’s status can negatively affects employers’ willingness to employ them. Although many asylum seekers have in-demand skills, local work experience and a strong desire to work, many Australian employers refuse to hire workers on bridging visas, leading to deskilling, exploitation and financial stress.
State and federal support is inadequate
The system of state support for asylum seekers does not adequately support a transition into work or a basic standard of living.
The system is designed to incentivise labour market participation and self-sufficiency. However, in its current form, there is little evidence to show that it supports this transition to work, addresses any of the barriers to work, or economically benefits asylum seekers. Instead, the system appears to place both those in and out of work at greater risk of poverty, potential exploitation at work, and homelessness.
As soon as an asylum seeker takes up work, they lose the federal government’s Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) payment. This ‘transitional support’ is designed to support asylum seekers who are waiting for the government to assess their refugee application and prevent them from becoming destitute, given that they do not have access to Centrelink and associated state support. Eligibility for this support has been significantly tightened in recent years and the budget slashed, with the Government claiming that “SRSS is not a social welfare Program and financial assistance is only intended to support individuals who are unable to work while resolving their immigration status.”
As such, there are only around 1,500 people in 2023 who are in receipt of SRSS funding, down from around 25,000 in 2015. This means that out of the over 70,000 people seeking asylum in Australia awaiting an outcome on their visa application, only 2% have access to social support.
For those few who do receive SRSS, it is not enough. At the maximum level, it provides a single person with $42 a day, leaving thousands well below the poverty line. The Refugee Council estimated that this accounted for around 10,000 of those who were still awaiting a decision, including children, the elderly and people with disabilities.
For those who enter work and do lose SRSS, the picture is not much better. There are restrictive conditions on bridging visas that mean that they are not eligible to access public or community housing, or federal income support. And because Australia’s social security system operates on a residency and needs based approach, as opposed to direct social security contributions from employers and individuals, it means that asylum seekers are automatically excluded from it because they are not residents. A person has to be an Australian resident, at minimum, to access the social security system and the Newly Arrived Residents Waiting Period (NARWP) does not count any time a person travels outside of Australia or the time spent in Australia on a temporary visa.
The NARWP is designed to incentivise early economic participation and self-sufficiency among migrants by limiting migrant access to various social supports. As such, the range of payments the NARWP applies to, and the length of the waiting period, have both increased over time.
The NARWP has been described as driving migrants to work below their skill level and preventing them from up-skilling, both of which reduce migrants’ long-term contribution. NARWP also commenced at a time when most permanent migrants had not spent any time onshore, yet today many migrants have for some time already contributed to Australia through taxation as they commenced a temporary visa. As such, there is a concern that the NARWP is unfair when migrants have made significant economic contributions to Australia. A recent review of the migration system in the country concluded that there was limited systematic analysis of the impacts of NARWP on migrant outcomes, even though it had created significant savings for the government budget.
However, charities, aid agencies and support organisations report that asylum seekers experience chronic housing insecurity, homelessness, financial insecurity, poverty and the threat of eviction as a result of both declining levels of SRSS and/ or a lengthy lack of access to social security payments due to their exclusion from NARWP. This has been heightened in 2023 by the soaring rental prices in the country which have meant that asylum seekers are struggling to find affordable places to rent.
Right to Work and labour shortages
Linking the right to work with labour shortages has not worked in Australia.
In theory, the SHEV had the twin benefit of linking asylum seekers to the labour market, potentially channelling them into areas of need and offering them a pathway to settlement that was broadly consistent with the government’s philosophy on the relationship between work and welfare. Arguably labour migration and humanitarian protection are based on different rationales but they can intersect. Labour market participation provides asylum seekers with the opportunity to contribute and integrate into the host country while facilitating their pathway to longer-term settlement. However, it is important that refugees and asylum seekers have equal access to labour protections under state law and that those laws comply with International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions.
SHEV emerged from a political compromise, and as such, little scrutiny was given to the type of work SHEV holders might engage in, how they might contribute to the economy, their prospects of finding work, and if they did find work, their potential vulnerability in the labour market. For example, SHEV is not a visa that was designed as part of a regional development strategy and there is no federal funding dedicated to facilitate the settlement of people on a SHEV in ‘regional Australia’. As such, there is little evidence as to how far SHEV visa holders have contributed to easing labour shortages, partly because there is poor visibility of temporary visa holders in general and their role in the labour market. One comprehensive literature review in 2016 concluded that almost nothing was known about people seeking asylum and their experiences of work in terms of empirical research.
What is known is that the bar for permanent settlement with a SHEV visa was considered to be so high at the time of conception as to be near-impossible to achieve, meaning that asylum seekers on this visa faced very little chance of ever qualifying for permanent settlement. This left SHEV visa holders vulnerable to exploitation in the workforce in their efforts to satisfy the restrictive visa pathway requirements.
‘Permanently temporary migration’ causes harm
The rise in ‘permanently temporary migration’ has caused harm and created second-class citizens. Australia’s visa settings have unintentionally enabled a cohort of migrants to become permanently temporary. These people have been working in Australia for long enough to integrate into the community, but remain temporary. Citing little support in Australia for a ‘guest worker’ society, a recent review of the migration system stated that “Countries where workers stay for extended periods, with no pathway to permanent residence, little access to state support and limited family reunion rights, are not role models for Australia.” It confirmed what the ethics literature reveals which is that, over time, migrants lose their connection with their home countries and become embedded in the Australian community. After this point, sending migrants home has the potential to cause harm both to the migrant and to Australia’s social cohesion.
The review found clear evidence of systemic exploitation and the risk of an emerging permanently temporary underclass. It concludes that, cumulatively, these factors erode public confidence.
In February 2023, the Government went some way to redressing these issues by clearing the way for some 20,000 people on TPVs and SHEVs to apply for permanency. This gave them the same rights as permanent residents and ensured that they no longer remain in limbo regarding their status. These affected people who have worked, paid taxes, and integrated into their community but faced limited rights to work, study or get a mortgage.
However, it only applies to those who entered Australia before Operation Sovereign Borders started in 2013 and who hold or have applied for a protection visa. This leaves significant numbers still uncertain as to their immigration status. In October 2022, Australian Government statistics revealed that 70 per cent of the 96,371 people in the onshore processing process are waiting for a decision from Home Affairs, Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) or federal courts.
Canada: Almost no restrictions on Right to Work
Canada is known for its relative openness to asylum seekers and is often touted as a world leader in refugee resettlement. In 2022, Canada welcomed over 47,500 refugees from over 80 countries, making it the top resettlement country in the world for the fourth year in a row.
Each year Canada grants permanent residence to approximately 30,000 refugees as part of a refugee protection process comprising of two main components: the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program administered outside Canada, and the In-Canada Refugee Protection Process.
The Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Programme, which helps refugees outside of Canada and their country of origin who need protection, is not considered here since they already meet the conditions of the Refugee Convention (many are referred by the UNHCR) and are granted immediate support on arrival to Canada. Resettlement then takes place through different resettlement programmes, including the Government-Assisted Refugees (GAR) programme and the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) programme. 
Under the In-Canada Refugee Protection Process, which is the main focus here, those seeking protection can make a claim at any border crossing or airport, as well as certain government offices inside Canada. However, asylum seekers are required to make a claim for asylum in the first country that they arrive in, so this has to be Canada if the claim is to be approved. In 2021, more than 1,500 asylum seekers entered the country without authorisation but, unlike in other countries, this does not lead to criminal prosecution or automatic detention once they claim asylum (or while their claim is being processed). It can take up to two years for officials to decide whether to grant an applicant protected status, but once that status is granted, most asylum seekers are immediately eligible to apply for permanent residency. In limited circumstances, some unsuccessful asylum seekers may qualify for permanent residency under the humanitarian category.
Canada’s approach to humanitarian protection
A key driver underlying Canada’s approach has been its long history over the last half century of welcoming immigrants and valuing multiculturalism. This has been reflected in the legislation of the 1960s and 1970s. A 1971 policy first articulated the government’s support for cultural diversity, and legislation in 1976 explicitly set out Canada’s commitment to refugees. It also cast immigration as a tool for meeting the country’s cultural, economic and social objectives. Like the US, immigration has significantly shaped Canadian culture and society. Foreign-born people now make up about one-quarter of Canada’s population, which is one of the highest ratios for industrialised Western nations.
Demographic and economic reasons have also shaped Canada’s approach to humanitarian protection. The Canadian government has deliberately leveraged international migration, including the humanitarian route, 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 population growth, making Canada a leader amongst G7 countries for population growth. In the twelve-month period from 1 January 2022 to 1 January 2023, Canada’s population grew by over 1 million people, the highest annual population growth rate (+2.7 per cent) on record since 1957. International migration accounted for nearly all that growth (95.9 per cent), countering an ageing demographic and fuelling economic growth.
Its approach to asylum seekers and refugees is also driven by a commitment to human rights and Canada is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.
Right to work requires a permit
All asylum-seekers have the right to work in Canada if they have a work permit. They can apply for a work permit by checking the box for this on their asylum application form. Once they have been found eligible to make a claim, have completed their medical examination, and given their biometrics, the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) will automatically process and issue them a work permit.
However, this process has recently been expedited because of the considerable strain that Canada’s asylum system has found itself under due to sustained high levels of asylum seekers seeking Canada’s protection. The lifting of COVID-19 pandemic-related border restrictions also contributed to a renewed surge in asylum claims in Canada, resulting in critical delays in the early stages of asylum claims processing. These delays prevented timely access to work permits for asylum seekers, leaving many without the opportunity to access employment and support themselves financially or contribute to the Canadian economy. This, in turn, placed additional pressure on provincial and territorial social assistance and other critical support.
From November 2022, the Canadian government began to process work permits for asylum seekers as soon as they found them eligible, and before they refer them to the IRCC. Claimants still have to fill in an application, complete a medical examination and give their biometrics, but no longer have to wait to be referred to the IRCC to obtain a work permit.
Family members may also be eligible for a work permit if the main applicant is making a claim and needs a job to pay for food, clothing and shelter, and the family member is with them in Canada, plans to work and is also applying for refugee status.
State and federal support for asylum seekers
The federal government provides support to asylum seekers who are awaiting the processing of their asylum claim. They do this in several ways. This includes temporary hotel accommodations, interim federal health benefits, and legal aid. The federal government also supports asylum seekers indirectly through funding to the provinces. This includes funding to support interim housing through the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP), and though funding for other social services through the Canada Social Transfer and the Canada-Quebec Accord.
In Quebec, for example, asylum seekers can access the following while waiting for a decision on their asylum application: 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.
Last-resort financial assistance is for those who are in a precarious financial situation. The purpose of this is to provide financial support for the time it takes to integrate into the labour market and participate actively in society. In Quebec, the basic benefit is $725 per month for an adult. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the UK, where asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds, including mainstream welfare benefits and housing.
Importantly, income may be earned up to $200 per adult without reducing the benefit amount, meaning that asylum seekers can take up work without facing the loss of all 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.
Strained capacity in the asylum system
Under the accelerated process described above, the standard time for issuing a work permit is 30 days once an application has been reviewed and the medical exam results have been received.
However, delays and a backlog of claims are still a feature of the system due to the recent rise in global displacement. These delays and restrictions on land border crossings have left asylum seekers at risk of destitution and exploitation. In 2022, Canada had over 90,000 asylum claims to process. In 2023, that is set to increase, with over 60,000 applications having been lodged so far. As of August 2023, there were 199,548 claims still pending. This means some asylum seekers are left waiting months or even years to have their application processed.
The number of claims has also been driven by unofficial crossings from the United States, which have increased in recent years as Donald Trump severely restricted access to the US. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, asylum seekers are required to make claims in the country where they first arrive. The 2004 agreement applied to land-based ports of entry but not to irregular or unofficial crossings, including that of Roxham Road, a rural county road in the forests of upstate New York, which has become the funnel for asylum seekers attempting to cross the border into Canada. In 2022, nearly 40,000 people entered Canada through this route. This prompted Quebec’s premier to demand that the Government resettle claimants in other provinces amid concern that Quebec’s capacity to take care of asylum seekers had been exceeded. As a result, there have been reports of social services and housing coming under pressure, with a rise of asylum seekers in homeless shelters and in need of food banks. In Toronto, asylum seekers who were turned away from shelters in the summer of 2023, found themselves sleeping on the street.
In 2023, the agreement was amended to apply to the length of Canada’s land border, rather than just ports of entry. This initially led to a dramatic drop in the number of people intercepted at unofficial crossings, but there are questions about how safe this is, with reports of smugglers helping people to cross the border and wait undetected until the two-week period (under which they can be sent back) lapses.
The recent pressures on the system have shown the disparities between the levels of support available to refugees and the more fractured network of support that is available to asylum seekers who are waiting for their claim to be processed, or for eligibility hearings. Refugees can apply for permanent resident status (including for immediate family members), allowing them to live, work and study anywhere in Canada and receive most social benefits, such as education and healthcare. Thereafter, they can apply for Canadian citizenship.
Delays in processing claims can also have a wider impact on settlement and integration. Prolonged asylum claims have been shown to interrupt education, careers and career-building, resulting in substantial periods of unemployment as well as atrophy of a person’s skills.
Labour market outcomes
Robust data on the employment rate of asylum seekers in Canada is not available. However, data on refugee outcomes in the labour market indicates that they are likely to face significant barriers to work and that their outcomes are likely to lag behind other immigrant and native workers.
Despite Canada granting the right to work, it is estimated that the unemployment rate among refugees is the highest (nine per cent) among all immigrants in Canada. Even for those who do manage to secure employment, it may be several years before their earnings converge with those of Canadian workers. Refugees tend to experience certain barriers more acutely, such as the complicated migratory process, which includes time in refugee camps, and transit between neighbouring countries, often resulting in the loss of valuable work-related documents and credentials.
Furthermore, even those who secure employment may have to endure several years before their earnings equalise with those of their Canadian counterparts. Evidence points to skill devaluing, bias and discrimination in hiring practises, the role of points-based selection policies, and the impact of familial structures. There has also been a negative impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. Job losses as a result of the pandemic were more significant for recently-arrived immigrants, who saw a reduced employment rate during the initial months of the pandemic compared to Canadian-born workers.
The impacts of right to work
While there are benefits to both asylum seekers and Canadian society of a right to work policy, there is little quantifiable evidence of the specific benefits to Canadian employers, the Canadian government and asylum seekers themselves. While something is known of immigrants’ and refugees’ contribution to sectors such as engineering, healthcare, IT, banking and finance and transportation, data has not been systematically gathered to show which sectors asylum seekers go into and what their work conditions are like.
One reason for this may simply be the longstanding and widely acknowledged contributions of migrants to Canada in terms of filling key labour and skill shortages, and in terms of being a driver of population growth. Notwithstanding recent issues with the rising numbers of claimants, the Canadian public has held favourable views of immigration for decades and so, the need to evidence their impacts may not be considered necessary. In 2022, a survey found that less than 30 per cent of Canadian felt immigration levels were too high. Support or immigration extends beyond public opinion to include the media, business, labour organisation and civil society. All of Canada’s major political parties agree on the fundamental features of the immigration system and anti-immigrant campaigns are rare. Part of this is down to the Canadian Government’s efforts to promote and embrace a policy of multiculturalism and make diversity part of the national identity, but Canada also does not have the large-scale irregular migration which has fuelled backlash in many other countries, including the US. In this sense, Canada benefits from ‘place luck’ as it is not easily accessed by asylum seekers through either land, water or air travel.
While asylum policy has tended to generate more controversy, this backdrop has undoubtedly meant that Canada’s openness to those seeking protection, and their right to seek work and contribute to Canadian society, culture and the economy, has not faced any serious reversal of policy.
Sweden: Almost no restrictions on Right to Work
Sweden is often singled out as having the most inclusive integration policy for migrants in general and refugees and their families in particular.
The origins of this lie in a commitment to human rights (Sweden ratified the UN convention of refugees in 1954 and the right of asylum was fully implemented in the new Foreigner Act of 1954). The origins of Swedish integration policy can also be traced back to the ideological concept of ‘welfare-state citizenship’ which has manifested itself in subsequent laws. The Foreigner Act, for example, enabled permanent residency (bosättningstillstånd) and the equal status of foreigners in the labour market. Since then, Swedish reception policies and laws have been deeply interconnected with integration. This notion of citizenship, aimed at fostering ‘belonging’ through social rights, informed the way in which Sweden would receive newcomers, a central principle being to prepare the newcomers for labour market participation and turn them into ‘self-sufficient’ individuals. Since then, reception legislation has been characterised by a remarkable institutional stability and a strong objective of equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities. The reforms that were launched in 2008, however, and which are discussed in more detail below, were also partly motivated by the need to fill labour shortages in sectors where it was proving hard to recruit.
In spite of this, the employment gap between native born and foreign born is among the largest among all OECD countries and the situation is particularly difficult for asylum seekers and refugees. As a result, the Swedish Government have implemented a series of reforms to integration policy, starting with the Establishment Law in 2010. However, high unemployment rates among refugees and their reunited families persisted and continue to present a challenge for integration policy. This has prompted the government to invest significantly in labour market integration, reorganise its flagship Introduction Program for refugees, and experiment with new policy solutions.
Following the arrival of significant numbers of refugees to Europe in 2015/16, the number of asylum applications in Sweden increased dramatically. In 2015, a total of around 163,000 persons applied for asylum in Sweden, of which around 51 000 came from Syria. As a result of this and of the pressures this put on services such as housing, in November 2015, the government announced a change in the asylum and family migration regulations, and a new three-year temporary law came into force into in 2016. After the new law, the number of asylum application dropped to 29,000 in 2016. In 2022, that number had dropped to 16,738 first applications for asylum but this was a 48 per cent increase from the previous year which saw 11,412 first applications, consistent with a general rise across many European countries.
The greatest change in the temporary law was the type of residency permit that asylum seekers are granted. Before the law change, the large majority of asylum seekers received permanent residency upon recognition. With the new law, resettled refugees are the only category who can receive a permanent residency. Those who are recognised as refugees according to the 1951 convention receives a residency permit of 3 years, and those who are given status of subsidiary protection are given a 13-month residency permit.
Some political parties changed their political positions after the arrival of refugees in 2015/16 and advocated for tougher integration policies with civic integration and income requirements for residence permits.
In June 2021, the temporary law was replaced by permanent amendments to the Aliens Act and the government brought in the following changes:
- All new residence permits would now be temporary (excluding those for resettled refugees). The first time-limited permit can vary in length, but in case of extension, a two-year residence permit is the main rule regardless of the type of permit in question.
- New requirements for obtaining a permanent residence permit include a self-subsistence requirement (adults must be able to support themselves and have a decent housing standard) and a requirement that it can only be granted after a minimum of three years.
- New maintenance requirements when relatives apply for a residence permit: a relative in Sweden must be able to support both themselves and the family members who want to apply for a residence permit, and have a home of sufficient size and standards for all to live in.
These changes illustrate a political shift away towards more conditional terms of residency and time-limited recognition status. The right-wing surge after 2015, provoked an increase in xenophobia and misconceptions about the future of the Swedish welfare state, issues that were largely fuelled by right-wing rhetoric. The Swedish parties’ political discourse took up the notion that reception standards in Sweden should not exceed minimum EU reception standards, putting into question the nonexcludable accessibility of the Swedish welfare state.
Although the refugee crisis led to changes in asylum and family migration policies, labour market integration policies in Sweden are still regarded as broadly favourable towards migrants in comparison to many other European countries. In theory at least, the system is designed to provide the flexibility for employers to recruit whom they want, regardless of formal skills or objective needs in the labour market, and it seems equally safe for labour migrants and domestic workers, since labour migrants are guaranteed wages and conditions that are in line with those agreed in Swedish collective bargaining agreements.
Most asylum seekers have the right to work
Historically, the underlying principle of the Swedish integration policy has been equal rights. In line with this, efforts have been made to remove obstacles to enter the labour market for asylum seekers.
A work permit is required to work in Sweden but asylum seekers can get an AT-UND instead which means they can work without a permit. To get an AT-UND, an asylum seeker must:
- Be able to present an approved identity document or demonstrate their identity in some other way.
- Have applied for asylum in Sweden.
- Have no applied for asylum previously and had their application refused.
An employer can see that an asylum seeker has an AT-UND by scanning a QR code on their LMA card. In 2020, 9,527 asylum-seekers were granted the right to seek work. In 2021, 3,943 asylum-seekers were granted the right to work. The number increased to 7,499 in 2022.
Asylum seekers are then free to find work, either through the Arbetsförmedlingen (Swedish public employment service), employment and recruitment agencies, or through their own contacts and networks, but the onus is on them to find work and no further support is offered by mainstream public services to assist their labour market entry and integration. They do, however, have access to some language training and civic orientation outside the formal system organised by study associations, high schools and NGOs, and such initiatives are increasingly supported by the state.  These measures aim to make the most of the long waiting periods that asylum seekers may experience by allowing participants to settle in more quickly into Swedish society.
Asylum seekers who have had their application refused are not allowed to work. However, if a person has been employed for more than four months before a negative decision, he or she can apply for a work permit and switch the status from an asylum seeker to a labour migrant. If they then obtain at least a one-year contract from the same employer, they can then apply for a work permit within two weeks. If successful, a work permit for up to two years can be granted. Multiple applications can be made but after four years with temporary permits, an application for a permanent residence permit is possible, provided that they have sufficient means to support and accommodate their family. The ability to switch status as an asylum seeker to a labour migrant was introduced in 2008 by the government as part of its integration policies and in order to respond to situations where rejected asylum seekers, with skills needed in Sweden, could demonstrate through their work experience that they had the required proficiency and knowledge to access the labour market.
In recent years, the number of applications for changing status has been steadily increasing. This means that one in six people whose asylum application was rejected has applied for a track change in the period 2017 - 2022. Since the system of changing tracks was introduced in December 2008, up to and including December 2021, just over 20,000 people in total have applied for a track change, of whom about 40 per cent have had their application granted.
Other supportive integration measures
Apart from the right to work, and some of the civic orientation and language activities mentioned above, there are no other measures to support the labour market integration of asylum seekers. This is important because there is no time limit for the Swedish Migration Agency to make a decision on an asylum application, meaning that applicants could be waiting months, if not years.
Housing at accommodation provided by the Migration Agency is free. If an asylum seeker has their own resources, then they must pay for accommodation themselves.
Financial assistance varies according to whether an asylum seeker is in accommodation provided by the Migration Agency or whether they are in private accommodation. In the case of the former, food is included for free, and so the allowance only covers other expenses. In the case of those in private accommodation, the allowance covers the cost of food as well. The levels of daily financial support are low and have not been increased since 1994, leaving many asylum seekers at risk of poverty and destitution. Asylum seekers are expected to live well below the Swedish minimum income, sometimes for several years, and the situation is made worse by factors such as the lack of affordable housing. For a single adult in an accommodation centre, this is €2.15 per day; for a single adult in private accommodation, this is €6.36. This is significantly lower (€190.91 per month for an asylum seeker in private accommodation) than the allowance for settled residents who are entitled to social welfare, which covers similar areas of support (€414.67).
Drivers of the Right to Work
The key driver of the right to work policy were labour shortages. However, the result of these policies was that they left many open to exploitation in an employer-driven system.
The labour immigration reforms that were launched in 2008 made Sweden ‘the most open labour migration system among OECD countries.’ These reforms abolished most state control and the restrictive rules based on labour market tests and introduced an employer-led system, which saw employers free to recruit third-country nationals, including asylum seekers, for any occupation and sector. This significantly curtailed trade union influence on labour immigration practices.
The government argued that the ‘main driving force’ for the 2008 reform was the labour shortages that could not ‘be filled solely by people living in Sweden or other EEA countries’ As such, the main goal was to increase labour migration from third countries to occupational sectors experiencing labour shortages. The idea at the time was to create an employer-driven system that would be able to respond flexibly to ever-changing needs on the labour market, while protecting the rights of migrant workers.
This easing of access to work was not targeted specifically at asylum seekers, but third-country nationals more generally. Nevertheless, they included a change which would allow refused asylum seekers to switch tracks to a labour migrant if they could demonstrate that their skills and experience were needed in Sweden, and numbers of asylum seekers taking this route gradually increased over subsequent years.
However, there is now evidence that these reforms went too far, putting many workers at risk of exploitation in low-skilled sectors. In the years following the reform, numerous third-country migrants, including asylum seekers, were recruited, not only to shortage occupations but also to low-skilled occupations without labour shortages. This prompted OECD to express concern and to call for closer monitoring of collective agreements, amongst other things.
- whether companies run by immigrants tended to recruit co-nationals;
- the extent to which employers recruiting migrants in surplus occupati (OECD, 2011:13, 19, 88).
According to the Swedish law, the employment conditions of third-country labour migrants must not be below the minimum level of the collective agreement or the praxis in the sector. In contrast to most other EU countries, Sweden has neither statutory minimum wages, nor any mechanisms to extend collective agreements to whole sectors. This gives trade unions a key role in promoting decent employment conditions, but as the OECD remarked at the time, it was difficult for trade unions to play a role in monitoring employers and workplaces that were not covered by collective agreements.
Since then, the number of low-skilled and low-paid service jobs has grown and, as a result, the competition to get such jobs has become fierce. From an employer perspective ‘the supply of persons available for jobs in the low-wage sector has been beneficial’ and this increases the potential for exploitation.
This risk of exploitation is further exacerbated by the structural features of the Swedish labour market. Most notable of these are the lack of low-skilled jobs as a share of total employment in Sweden. This is discussed below.
Structural features of the labour market
In contrast to patterns observed elsewhere in the OECD, employment disparities between the foreign and native-born populations with the same qualification level are particularly pronounced among those with low levels of education in Sweden. This structural feature of the Swedish labour market exacerbates integration. Almost one-third of immigrants hold, at most, a lower secondary education which is twice the proportion of the among the native-born. High, collective bargained entry wages and relatively knowledge-intensive production have meant that few jobs require less than an upper-secondary education, and the share of low-skilled employment in Sweden – accounting for around five per cent of total employment – is among the lowest in the OECD.
This poses a particular issue for many asylum seekers since historically, many tend to be younger and lower skilled, or their qualifications are less likely to be recognised in Sweden. As such, they often find it difficult to find employment regardless of their qualifications and generally end up in work that is limited to unqualified, low-skilled sectors (e.g. working in construction, casual labour etc).
A low-skilled worker competing in a sector with a surplus of labour is much more exposed and vulnerable to abuse than a highly skilled professional with access to a global labour market.
The increased supply of low-skilled labour in a country like Sweden, with few low-skilled jobs results in higher unemployment among low-skilled workers, increased competition and displacement, with asylum seekers seldom having alternative employers. This is what happened in sectors of the economy where Sweden had a surplus of labour such as jobs in the hotel and restaurant sector, janitors and home care providers. These conditions increased the risk of exploitation of asylum seekers and evidence of this has been well documented.
In 2022, the Swedish National Audit Office found that the system of ‘changing tracks’, whereby a refused asylum seeker can seek work under certain conditions by changing their status to being that of a labour migrant, can make it possible to circumvent legislation on asylum and labour immigration. In addition, they found:
“a risk of wage dumping, that sham employment goes undetected, that vulnerable people are exploited in the labour market, and that people who do not meet the criteria for changing tracks can still be granted residence and work permits.”
While collective bargaining agreements and trade unions are supposed to protect these kinds of workers, it was often difficult to determine whether agreements meant that pay levels were satisfactory. Moreover, not all employers had a collective agreement in place.
The reforms of 2008, and the design of the regulatory framework, put many labour migrants in a vulnerable position, especially asylum seekers many of whom were already in a disadvantaged position. As the work permit linked the migrant to a single employer in a particular occupation, and because expulsion would follow after a few months of unemployment if the migrant lost their job, very unequal power relations were created. Through the restrictions of the work permit, the legislation constructed employment relations which strongly resembled the conditions of unfree labour. On the other hand, the prospects of getting a permanent residence permit after four years of work appeared very attractive for both economic migrants and those asylum seekers who have changed track. This combination of restrictions and prospects created the condition under which the exploitation of these workers became possible.
Improving labour protection
A number of changes have been made to the system since its introduction in 2008. However, improving labour protection has proven a challenge in practise. For example, when the authorities tried to improve the protection of vulnerable low-skilled labour migrants, including asylum seekers, the controls had a negative impact on highly-qualified labour migrants. Consequently, the “flexibility” promised by the reform was largely lost as a result of over-liberalisation and more cumbersome processes.
When in 2011 the government commissioned the Migration Board to counteract abuse of the new rules for labour immigration, special control procedures were introduced for the berry picking industry, for example. In 2012, rules were put in place for companies with less than 50 employees in areas such as cleaning, hotels and restaurants, where a surplus of workers puts a downward pressure on wages and conditions. However, it has continued to be a challenge for the Swedish Migration Board to design the right measure of controls.
Sweden, famous for its high union density and collective agreement coverage has been put under increasing pressure over the past few decades with a decline in union density among blue-collar workers, an employment gap between the native-born and foreign-born that is one of the largest among the European OECD countries, and the arrival of a number of asylum seekers which has tested the limits of its reception and integration policies and infrastructure. Since then, the largely permanent basis upon which asylum seekers could access work as a means to progressing towards permanent residency has been replaced with temporary work permits that attach greater conditionality to the granting of permanent residency.
Portugal: Almost no restrictions on Right to Work
Portugal has a long history as a country of emigration. Despite several periods of immigration over the past half century, the share of the foreign-born population remains low in Portugal relative to other OECD countries (nine per cent compared with a 13 per cent OECD average in 2018). Until the mid-1990s, most immigrants came from the former Portuguese African colonies and to a lesser extent from Brazil. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a new wave of labour migration came first from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, followed by a more recent wave from Brazil. As a result, the four main nationalities of foreign residents in 2018 were Brazilian (20 per cent), Cape Verdean (eight per cent), Ukrainian (eight per cent), and Romanian (seven per cent).
Most immigration to Portugal has been labour and family related. Given its geographical position, the country has historically received few asylum seekers. From 2008 until 2014, just before the 2015/16 surge in asylum seekers in Europe, Portugal granted humanitarian protection to less than 600 individuals. This number is small, both in absolute and in per-capita terms, when compared with other European OECD countries. For Portugal, humanitarian inflows represent less than one per cent of permanent migration inflows over this period.
The 2015/16 surge of asylum seekers in Europe led to a tripling of asylum requests from 2014 to 2017, but even with this increase, the number of asylum requests per capita remained modest by international comparisons. Even after receiving the sixth-highest total number of refugees through the 2015–2018 EU resettlement scheme, as well as entries from various other relocation programmes, the country hosted only 2,651 refugees in 2021, or 0.1 per cent of total refugees in the EU. In spite of this, the Portuguese Authorities have made efforts to develop a new and comprehensive system to relocate and facilitate the integration of asylum seekers. This has made Portugal one of the leading ‘Top Ten’ countries, alongside leading Nordic and traditional destination countries, in the MIPEX ranking of integration policies.
Alongside its long history of emigration, a related key driver of Portugal’s approach to immigration has been its demographic crisis, with one of the fastest declining populations in Europe, a historically low birth rate and an old-age dependency ratio that is set to top the EU by 2050. All of this has increased the need to promote immigration while reducing emigration.
Immediate right to work
Since 2022, Portugal has granted immediate rights to work for asylum seekers, with few restrictions.
According to the 2019 MIPEX rankings, Portugal leads the way among the ‘newer’ destination countries, far ahead of countries like Italy and Spain, when it comes to economic migration. Ranked #1 in labour market policies, alongside Germany and the Nordics (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland), Portugal guarantees equal treatment and targeted support both for Portuguese and non-EU citizens. As such, Portugal is one of the few OECD countries in which all asylum seekers can access work shortly after arrival, facing no geographical, sectoral or occupational restrictions in the labour market.
In 2022, an amendment to the Asylum Act meant that asylum seekers could work from the moment of their application for international protection. Previous to this, asylum seekers had to wait for admission to the regular procedure and issuing of a provisional residence permit, which usually took around one month.
There are no limitations attached to the right of asylum seekers to employment, such as labour market tests or the prioritisation of nationals and legally resident third country nationals, and the issuing of provisional residents’ permits are free of charge. The only restriction on employment enshrined in the law consists of limited access to certain categories of public sector jobs, but this is in place for all third-country nationals and not just those seeking asylum. Asylum seekers benefit from the same conditions of employment as nationals, including regarding salaries and working hours.
Changes to facilitate access to work
Portugal has recently made other changes to facilitate access to work for those with temporary protection.
Portugal has recently tried to ensure that skills recognition of foreign qualifications held by asylum seekers is not a further barrier to accessing work, training or education. Following the activation of the temporary protection regime in relation to displaced people from Ukraine, a number of legislative provisions were enacted regarding the recognition of qualifications and skills of those seeking temporary protection from Ukraine. Accordingly, such requests have priority and are exempt from a number of bureaucratic requirements such as the legalisation of documents issued by foreign entities and certification of copies. Applicants are also exempt from the payment of fees. A subsequent Decree-Law125 established procedural guidance in the event that documentation is lacking due to the experience of war. The law also established that beneficiaries of temporary protection holding foreign certificates or diplomas that are not recognised in Portugal must have guaranteed access to a higher education institution granting a degree in the same field upon request.
Although this does not yet apply to other groups who are seeking protection, the changes are a commendable approach to skills recognition, which is known to be a key barrier to the labour market integration of asylum seekers and refugees in many other countries. If proven to be impactful, there is potential for it to be applied to other groups of asylum seekers and refugees.
It is too early to assess what impact some of these changes have had on asylum seekers access to work. At the time of writing, there are no available statistics on the number of asylum seekers in Portugal who are in employment. However, what is known is that they face a number of barriers to accessing work, similar to those faced by asylum seekers in other countries. These include language skills, professional skills that are not aligned with those needed by employers, recognition of foreign qualifications, the reluctance of some employers to hire asylum seekers, lack of support networks, and limited knowledge of the local labour market and cultural norms.
Germany: Right to Work granted after three months
Germany is one of the top destinations for asylum seekers and refugees in the EU. In response to the 2015/16 large-scale arrivals, Germany suspended the Dublin agreement and took in over one million asylum seekers during this time. It was the only European country to do this and, with relatively little experience of refugee resettlement, has seen many of those successfully find work, education and training.
Since then, a number of restrictions have been put in place regarding access to work, particularly for those in initial reception centres. These are detailed in the section below.
In 2022, a total of 244,132 first applications for asylum were lodged in Germany, compared to 190,816 in 2021. These were mainly by Syrian, Afghan and Turkish nationals. The overall recognition rate was 72 per cent, but with wide variation depending on nationality, with Syrian and Afghans having a recognition rate of 99 per cent.
Right to work is granted after three months
Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work for the first three months of their wait, after which point they are subject to a labour market test. The main difference between those that are granted the right to work and those who are not is whether they have permission to stay (Aufenthaltsgestattung) or are ‘tolerated’ (Duldung). A tolerated stay permit is not actually a residence permit, but a temporary residence document which enables the person to stay in Germany for a limited period. It applies to those whose application has been rejected but whose removal is suspended for either legal or practical reasons. Those who hold it can legally reside in Germany for the time, but their obligation to leave still stands. Since 2022, however, it is possible for some of those with this status to legalise their stay and obtain legal residence. Aufenthaltsgestattung is only a temporary residence permit for the time that the asylum request is pending.
If an application for asylum is accepted, the person can work without restriction and has the same rights as a German citizen in the labour market. Even those who are ‘tolerated’ can also take up work after waiting a period of six months at the discretion of the authorities. After 15 months, asylum-seekers and those on subsidiary protection – called ‘Geduldete’ or ‘tolerated persons’ – can also work without restriction.
Requirements around control – how much one can be blamed for one’s situation – and reciprocity – one’s contribution to society – are also embedded in German immigration law and public discourse tends to separate ‘deserving’ asylum seekers from ‘undeserving’ economic migrants. The official label of ‘tolerated’ implies this and so it would seem that Germans too feel some unease with the idea of an entirely unconditional welcome for asylum-seekers.
Notwithstanding this, there seems to be a larger framing of migration in Germany as a potential asset rather than a hindrance.
Recent restrictions on the right to work
Recent years have seen the imposition of restrictions to the right to work, particularly for those in initial reception centres. While applying for protection, asylum seekers do not have a right to choose the Federal state or location where they will live. Moreover, their permission to remain and work is linked to a specific place of residence and specifies the area within which they can live.
Prior to 2020, asylum seekers were barred from access to employment as long as they were under an obligation to stay in an initial reception centre (outside these centres, they could be permitted to take up employment after having stayed in the federal territory for three months). However, this limitation has been severely extended by the 2019 Skilled Workers’ Immigration Act. While the initial law foresaw a maximum stay in a reception centre of three months, the maximum was extended to six months in 2015 and by 12 months in 2019, meaning that asylum seekers may now be obliged to stay in an initial reception centre for 18 months and sometimes longer.
There are other restrictions that may limit access to the labour market for asylum seekers.
First, the labour market test requires asylum seekers to apply for an employment permit each time they want to take up employment. To that end, they have to prove that there is a ‘concrete’ job offer, i.e. an employer has to declare that the asylum seeker will be employed in case the employment permit is granted, and a detailed job description must be shared with the authorities.
Second, final authorisation must be given by the Federal Employment Agency. Decision-making power is relatively decentralised to municipal immigration bodies, so there can be some variation in implementation, but immigration officials have been found to consistently draw on ideas of ‘deservingness’ which relate to the CARIN criteria (control, attitude, reciprocity, identity and need).
Welfare support for asylum seekers
Asylum seekers are entitled to welfare support from the moment they request asylum (Asylgesuch) in accordance with the Asylum Seekers’ Benefits Act. They do not receive the full benefits, however, until they formally gain the status of an asylum seeker through the issuance of an arrival certificate at the reception centre to which they have been assigned. In practice, this usually happens within a few days after they have reported to the authorities.
If asylum seekers live in an initial reception facility or shared accommodation, they are provided with items that count as "necessary needs." This includes food, shelter, heating, clothing, health and personal care products, and household goods. The protection seekers are also entitled to cash benefits (‘pocket money’). For single beneficiaries, this is currently about 150 euros per month.
If food, clothing and other daily necessities are not provided in kind, asylum seekers receive a monthly cash benefit. As of January 2023, the monthly rate for a single adult was 410 Euros and 369 euros for a single adult in an accommodation centre. These rates amount to a level of about 82 per cent of regular social benefits – and less than 75 per cent for single adults living in accommodation centres. If asylum seekers qualify for support under the Asylum Seekers Benefit Act, then they can earn up to €200 for some voluntary activities without their benefits being reduced.
Before 2019, asylum seekers were usually granted access to regular social benefits after 15 months of benefits received under the Asylum Seekers’ Benefits Act. However, the waiting period to access regular social benefits was extended by an additional 3 months in 2019 and so asylum seekers now have to wait up to 18 months before they are entitled to regular social benefits.
Those who have already been granted international protection in another EU Member State, or whose asylum application in Germany has been rejected as inadmissible and whose obligation to leave the territory is enforceable, or those who are ‘tolerated’ are excluded from all social benefits after a transition period of two weeks.
Asylum seekers can be housed in three types of accommodation: reception centres, collective accommodation centres and decentralised accommodation. Emergency centres were reintroduced after 2022 following a rise in the numbers of asylum seekers but they are intended to be temporary.
Asylum seekers are generally obliged to stay in an initial reception centre for a period of up to 18 months after their application has been lodged. The Federal States are required to establish and maintain the initial reception centres and, as such, there is at least one such centre in each of Germany’s 16 Federal States with most Federal States having several initial reception facilities. Conditions in these facilities varies and some have recently been criticised for having sub-standard levels of living conditions by NGOs, volunteers and asylum seekers.
Once the obligation to stay in initial reception centres ends, asylum seekers should, ‘as a rule’, be accommodated in collective accommodation centres. These accommodation centres are usually located within the same Federal State as the initial reception centre to which the asylum seeker was sent for the initial reception period. Decentralised accommodation usually refers to asylum seekers’ own accommodation. However, the general housing crisis in Germany means that many struggle to enter the housing market and have to stay in reception centres.
Generally, access to health care is restricted for asylum seekers for the first 18 months. This precludes instances of acute disease, medical treatment, vaccinations and preventative medical checkups and care for pregnant women. After 18 months, asylum seekers are entitled to health care under the same conditions that apply to German citizens who receive social benefits.
The labour market integration of asylum seekers
Germany’s approach to the labour market integration of asylum seekers is widely recognised as a success.
Prior to 2015, the number of people applying for asylum in Germany was relatively low. Arrivals predominantly came from seven countries: Iraq, Turkey, Russia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Serbia, and Syria. While asylum seekers only had to wait three months before gaining access to the labour market – one of the lowest waiting times in Europe – underemployment was high. After large numbers fled war and terrorism in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and arrived on Europe’s shores in 2015/16, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announcing “We can do this!” and suspended the Dublin agreement. Germany took in over one-million first-time asylum applications during this time, the vast majority coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Eritrea. The majority of these asylum seekers (87 per cent) left their countries because of war, persecution or forced labour. By 2018, most of the 1.8 million people in Germany with a refugee background either had protection (refugee) status (72 per cent) or were tolerated (nine percent), while two per cent faced orders to leave the country and 17 per cent were still in asylum proceedings.
In spite of the scale of these arrivals, and many of their characteristics which indicated a more challenging experience of labour market integration,evidence shows that their integration into the labour market has been slightly faster than previous cohorts of refugees into Germany. Nineteen per cent of asylum seekers who arrived in Germany in 2015 were in a job by 2017. Forty-nine per cent of those who came since 2013 were able to find steady employment within five years of arriving. Seventy-five per cent were younger than 40 and most had higher levels of education than other migrants. On arrival, only about one per cent declared having good or very good German language skills but by 2018, that figure had increased to 44 per cent. 
Arguably, such high rates of labour market integration were and are still needed within an ageing German labour market and an economy which is facing skill and labour shortages. Indeed, within Germany, the settlement of those arriving in 2015, has been almost consistently judged to be a success. German policymakers introduced a series of regulations to improve the speed and efficiency of asylum procedures. Meanwhile, asylum seekers from countries with high protection rates were even 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. Some 17 percent had pending claims with restricted work authorization. The integration courses, coupled with available language support, have been found to be a key contributing factor to higher employment rates amongst these groups.
Since then, Germany has reinforced its support for equal opportunities for non-EU immigrants to progress into stable quality employment and one international area of strength has been Germany’s targeted support measures, as well as its improving procedures to recognise foreign qualifications and skills. In 2019, MIPEX ranked Germany in the international Top Ten for labour market mobility.
Government framing of the issue
Integration policies emerge as one of the strongest factors shaping not only the public’s willingness to accept and interact with immigrants, but also immigrants’ own attitudes, belonging, participation and even health in their new home country.
The German Government, unlike some other Governments across Europe around the time of 2015 onwards, did not try and adopt the policies of far-right populists. Even though the popularity of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) soared after the arrival of asylum seekers in 2015, the government refused to mimic their anti-immigrant policies and this can be said to have kept the country from privileging the far right.
Such successful integration has mobilized civil society. A survey published in 2017 by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research suggested that 55 per cent of Germans had contributed to the integration of refugees since 2015, either financially or through their own involvement in supportive actions. According to a 2020 study by Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, three-quarters of felt “welcome” or “very welcome.”
Between 2008 and 2015, the number of employees in companies founded by migrants also grew, by 50 per cent to 1.5 million and there has been wider support from business for the integration of asylum seekers and refugees. Business associations have pushed to open the market to asylum seekers.
As a result of all this, public discourse has tended to give more thought to the economic benefits of allowing all migrants to work, namely to reduce labour shortages and maintain contributions to social security systems.
Challenges remain in addressing the capacity and condition of reception facilities, and in tackling labour market inequalities. Evidence shows that many asylum seekers were also more severely impacted by the effects of Covid-19 that German or EU nationals. Unemployment rose to a much higher degree, and they were more likely to be affected by short-term work schemes.
Belgium: Right to work granted after four months
Belgium was the first among industrialised nations in Europe to develop into a country of immigration. Over the last three decades, Belgium has become a permanent country of settlement for many different types of migrants, including those seeking asylum.
In 2022, a total of 36,871 applications for international protection were lodged on the Belgian territory, out of which 4,652 were subsequent applications. Throughout 2022, the Commissioner General for refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS) granted refugee status to 10,632 persons and subsidiary protection status to 429 persons, bringing the total recognition rate to 43 per cent. Refugee status was mostly granted to Syrians (2,499), Afghans (2,467), Eritreans (1,357) and Palestinians (760). The subsidiary protection status was mostly granted to Yemenites (133), Somalians (130), Syrians (37) and Palestinians (23).
Belgium receives a relatively small percentage of all asylum applicants from across the EU. In July 2023, the country had 2,972 applications which represented three per cent of the total number of applicants in the EU+. Despite this, reception services have been struggling to cope in recent years. Due to the large numbers of those seeking protection in Belgium, including those from Ukraine, as well as problems with the asylum system itself (including a backlog of cases), there has been a crisis in reception services which started in mid-October 2021 and which is ongoing at the time of writing.
In 2022, an increased inflow of applicants for international protection, in conjunction with a reduced outflow, created extreme pressure on the reception network of FEDASIL. FEDASIL is the Federal agency responsible for the reception of asylum seekers. Despite its efforts to upscale its reception capacity and reduce pressure on the network, FEDASIL could no longer provide accommodation for all those entitled, leading to multiple convictions against the Belgian state and FEDASIL, including by the European Court of Human Rights. The granting of the right to work in Belgium has to be seen within this context, since access to work is severely curtailed if asylum seekers cannot access the reception system in the first place.
Right to work granted after 4 months
Following the 2015/16 influx of asylum seekers to Europe, Belgium reduced the waiting period for asylum seekers to be allowed to work from 6 to 4 months following the registration of their application. Shortening the waiting period came about from a willingness to enable asylum seekers to generate their own income and become more self-sufficient.
At present, asylum seekers who have not yet received a first instance decision on their asylum case within 4 months following the lodging of their asylum application are allowed to work. The right to work is stated on their temporary residence permit card, so a separate work permit is not needed. The right to work permits asylum seekers to work in any area they choose and there are no limits on sectors or occupations.
Asylum seekers have the right to work until a decision is taken by the Commissioner General for refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS), or in case of an appeal, until the Council for Alien Law Litigation (CALL) has notified a negative decision. However, they are not allowed to work during the appeal procedure before the CALL if the procedure at the CGRS did not last longer than 4 months. Asylum seekers who lodge a subsequent asylum application are not able to work until the CGRS declares the application admissible and until they receive an orange card. An orange card is a provision residence permit that those seeking asylum receive. It states whether or not you can work.
Other support for asylum seekers
Asylum seekers are legally allowed to stay in Belgium until a final decision has been made on their application. During this time, Belgian authorities will assign them a place in a reception centre which they cannot choose, but which is free. They are not obliged to stay at the assigned reception location and can move around the country freely but must not travel outside of Belgium. After a stay of 4 months at a collective reception centre, they can ask for an individual residence.
Other forms of support are tied to acceptance of a place at a reception centre. On arrival, FEDASIL, the agency responsible for the reception of applicants for international protection, makes an initial social and medical screening of the applicants and verifies whether they are entitled to and interested in reception. If so, they are accommodated in the arrival centre until a reception place adapted to their situation is found. They are then allocated a reception place where they will benefit from material assistance such as meals, clothing, medical, social and psychological assistance, a daily allowance, and access to legal assistance and services such as interpreting and training. If an asylum seeker decides not to be accommodated by FEDASIL, they are not entitled to these forms of material assistance, except for medical assistance.
All asylum seekers in reception centres can participate in activities that encourage integration and knowledge of the country. The regional Offices for Employment organise professional training for asylum seekers who are allowed to work with the aim of helping them find a job. In addition, they can also enrol in adult education courses, for which some knowledge of the national languages is required.
Asylum seekers have access to primary health care but may have to pay a minimal fee for some specialised services. Treatment is free but some treatments which are deemed too expensive are withheld. They are also entitled to a daily allowance.
Collective centres and individual shelters often work together with specific doctors or medical centres in the area of the centre or reception place. For asylum seekers who do not stay in reception centres allocated to them, or who are under reduced support because of a sanction, their right to medical aid is not affected. However, accessing it may be difficult in practise. The online reimbursement process, which has to be done before going to see a doctor, is time-consuming and it can be weeks before a response is received.
Once someone’s asylum application has been refused, and the reception rights have ended, that person will only be entitled to emergency medical assistance.
A weakened reception system
Although right to work is granted in four months in Belgium, this sits alongside a reception system that has been considerably overwhelmed in recent years. Hence, any benefits in granting early access to work cannot be fully realised because many people simply had no access to the asylum registration procedure in the first place.
Access to the asylum procedure were severely impacted in 2022. During several periods in 2022, the number of persons allowed to apply for international protection at the ‘arrival centre’ was limited to the places available on that day in the reception system. Some men had to wait in line for days before being able to make their asylum application because families, minors and vulnerable people were prioritised for reception. This left a large number of single men without accommodation and, at times, FEDASIL was even temporarily unable to accommodate families and unaccompanied minors due to the severe shortage of reception places. Consequently, these men were not yet considered ‘asylum seekers’ and could not claim certain fundamental rights linked to this status, such as the right to reception.
As such, these men often could not obtain their temporary residence permit since most local administrations required a fixed residence in order to issue one. Since applicants without accommodation often sleep rough, they are unable to obtain fixed residency thus making it near impossible to access work.
In 2022, the Belgian Resettlement Programme was put on hold due to a lack of reception places. Only 71 transfers were organised and the 2023 pledge was reduced from 1,400 to 500. To attract more reception partners and create more reception places for resettled refugees, resettlement funding was increased. FEDASIL upscaled its capacity, the European Commission allocated €200 million to Belgium, and the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) launched an Operational Plan to support the Belgian reception network. Despite these efforts, the shortage of reception places persisted and had important legal and humanitarian consequences. The Belgian State and FEDASIL have been condemned and fined by tribunals for their inability to provide reception, and human rights and civil society organisations consistently raised concerns about the situation of applicants for international protection left without reception.
Other integration challenges
Apart from the issues mentioned above, asylum seekers face other barriers to accessing work, education and training. Although they are entitled to a free assistance programme and vocational training, in practise, finding a job is very difficult while claims are being processed. This is due to the provisional and precarious residence status, the limited knowledge of national languages, and the fact that many foreign diplomats are not considered equivalent to national diplomas. Labour market discrimination is also a barrier.
There are also disparities in healthcare. In 2019, a survey found that the organisation of health care in Belgium is unequal and inefficient, leading to differential treatment of asylum seekers based on their place of residence. The system was found to be opaque and complicated for resulting in a lack of coordination and cooperation. Access to specialised care was also found to be difficult for asylum seekers due to a slow and complex administration that has to grant permission first. The Federal Knowledge Centre for Healthcare (KCE) also identified other various thresholds that hamper access to health care, such as language barriers, a lack of interpreters and limited transportation possibilities.
The aforementioned reception crisis has had a further impact, restricting access to health care and leading to a deteriorating medical situation among those who are destitute.
United States: Right to work granted after six months
Immigration has been, and remains still, the foundation of the United States. There are few who would contest the basic premise that immigration is necessary and beneficial for the continuing vibrancy and growth of America’s economy and society. The right to asylum is laid out in law and asylum seekers are granted the same protection and support as those with refugee status. Right to work is granted after six months. However, immigration remains a contentious issue and growing numbers of asylum seekers, coupled with an inefficient asylum system, has led to a number of American cities struggling to cope with large numbers of those seeking protection.
The right to asylum is laid out in U.S. immigration law and Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it is also outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The US government granted asylum on a largely ad hoc basis until the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, which created the current statutory basis for asylum, guaranteeing family reunification rights and providing asylees, or migrants who receive asylum, with a path to permanent residency after one year.
The law created two distinct routes for those seeking protection: refugee status and asylum. Refugees are people who meet the legal definition of persecution and apply for protection when they are outside the US. Generally, they are screened and registered as refugees by the UN and then vetted again by the State Department before travelling to the US.
Asylum is the route for people who are physically present in the US or at a port of entry. There are three ways in which a person may apply for asylum in the US:
- Affirmative asylum. A person who is not in removal proceedings may affirmatively apply for asylum through the IS Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If the asylum officer does not grant asylum, the applicant does not have lawful immigration status and they are referred to the immigration court for removal proceedings where they may renew the request for asylum through the defensive process and appear before an immigration judge.
- Defensive asylum. A person who is in removal proceedings may apply for asylum by filing the application with an immigration judge so that asylum is applied for as a defense against removal from the US. Unlike the criminal court system, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) does not provide appointed counsel for individuals in an immigration court, even if they are unable to retain an attorney by their own means.
- Expedited Asylum: A person taken into custody within 14 days of entering the US is placed into ‘expedited removal’ proceedings. This is a new process from 2022 which allows an asylum officer to review and adjudicate their asylum claim before they are placed into formal removal proceedings. People put through this process who are denied asylum are referred to the immigration court for removal proceedings and further expedited hearings on their asylum application.
Asylum seekers who arrive at a U.S. port of entry or enter the United States without inspection generally must apply through the defensive or expedited asylum processes.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS), similar to that offered by EU countries, offers migrants from designated countries permission to reside legally in the US for a period of up to eighteen months, which can be renewed by the government indefinitely. During that period, TPS holders are eligible for employment and travel authorisation and are protected from deportation. The programme does not include a path to permanent residency or U.S. citizenship, but TPS recipients can apply for those separately. Countries such as Syria and Ukraine are included on the US programme but the overwhelming majority of TPS holders (around 93 per cent) are from Latin American countries.
Wider support for asylum seekers
If you are granted asylum, then you have an automatic right to work in the US. However, there is a notable lack of support while a claim is pending and the support that is available when asylum is granted.
While an asylum claim is pending, it is possible to apply for Employment Authorisation (an Employment Authorization Document, or EAD). Asylum seekers can apply for this 150 days after they have filed their asylum claim. They are not eligible to receive an EAD until their asylum application has been pending for at least another 30 days, meaning that the earliest that they can work is 180 days after filing their asylum claim (or six months). If approved, EADs are valid for up to two years and asylum seekers are immediately authorised to work. With an EAD, an asylum seeker is eligible to use employment services from One-Stop Career Centres including job search assistance, career counselling and occupational skills training.
Some help is available from local organisations that are funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This may include financial assistance, medical assistance, employment preparation and job placement, and English language training. Resettlement agencies play a crucial role in helping asylees find housing. Without assistance, and with language barriers, discrimination and high rental prices to contend with, many are forced to reply on local non-profits and shelters.
However, once a person is granted asylum, then much more support is available to them. They can work without an EAD card as their asylum grant will allow them to obtain an unrestricted Social Security card, which is all they would need to present to an employer. They may also remain in the US indefinitely and have the right to work for as long as they retain asylum status. They may also be able to petition to bring their spouse and/or children to the United States or allow them to remain in the United States indefinitely.
Apart from an EAD, those who are granted asylum are also eligible to apply for certain benefits, including an unrestricted Social Security card, cash and medical assistance, employment assistance, and a Refugee Travel Document. They may apply for a green card a year after being granted asylum.
The impact of delays in processing
While asylum seekers are afforded much the same protection and support as those with refugee status, the reality is that being able to access that support is often more difficult. Those granted asylum can live and work in the US permanently, gain a path to citizenship, and apply for their family to join them, but there are practical constraints and realities around this.
First, the asylum process can take years to conclude. In some cases, a person may file his or her application or pass a credible or reasonable fear screening and receive a hearing or interview date years in the future. Backlogs, which were already long before the pandemic, have only grown longer since then due to COVID restrictions and months or years-long closures in some courts and asylum offices. The backlog of pending asylum cases in the US courts now sits at over 980,000. It is not just the high numbers of asylum seekers in recent years and the pandemic that have contributed to this, but also the diversity of nationalities and the large share arriving as families.
In 2021, the largest group of asylum seekers was from Venezuela, followed by China, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The past decade has seen a sharp rise in asylum applications from Latin America, primarily Mexico and Central America, as migrants fled worsening violence, poverty, and political dysfunction. Of the pending asylum cases in the backlog, more than one-third are for migrants from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Asylum seekers are left in limbo and are more vulnerable while their cases are pending. This results in prolonged uncertainty for asylum seekers and their families abroad. It also puts them at increased risk of destitution. Uncertainty over their future impedes the employment, education, and general health and wellbeing of asylum seekers. For example, the average wait time to hear back on your EAD can be anywhere from one to four months. USCIS has a stated goal of delivering EADs within 90 days but has rarely been able to meet this self-imposed deadline. These delays tend to push asylum seekers into the underground economy where they are vulnerable to deportation and exploitation.
Backlogs and delays can cause prolonged separation of refugee families, leave family members abroad in dangerous situations, and make it more difficult to retain pro bono counsel who are able to commit to legal services for an extended period of time.
Asylum seekers must also navigate a difficult and complex process that can involve multiple government agencies. This is made all the more difficult given the language barriers that many face.
Many advocates for asylum seekers and refugees, as well as many City mayors and support organisations, have been calling on the Government to provide a path to expedited work authorisations for newly-arrived asylum seekers, allowing them to work legally. This, some argue, would help counter America’s declining working-age population and the continuing shortage of skill and labour across many of the country’s sectors.
New arrivals receive almost no support
The pressures that many American cities – most notably New York – have recently come under is caused by the fact that new arrivals are entitled to almost no federal public support. Furthermore, many lack family or social connections in the US, making it hard to find a foothold in US communities. Unlike in the past, when those arriving without authorisation tended to avoid federal authorities, new asylum seekers who have come through the border have already been processed by the government, and so are more likely to need assistance while they wait for the outcome of their claim through the courts.
The result has been that many cities have found themselves unable to provide adequate support for those needing it and many asylum seekers have been left destitute and homeless. Additional federal funding has been made available and President Biden has moved to add Venezuela to the list of those who can be granted TPS, but Cities have had to focus on meeting many of these peoples’ basic needs (food and shelter) through a patchwork of approaches and though heavy reliance on local not-for-profit organisations. Housing has been a huge challenge. All this has meant that many cities are unable to offer asylum seekers any longer-term support to integrate, such as employment services, legal aid, or healthcare.
Data on the employment rate of asylum seekers is often difficult to disaggregate from the more general data on foreign-born in the US. However, some studies have found that while refugees in the have the same likelihood of employment as other immigrants, they have significantly lower occupational status and earnings. The employment rate tends to increase in the short term; one study, based on data from the 2014 Office of Refugee Resettlement survey, found that it increased from less than 40 per cent to over 50 per cent in the first three years after arrival in the US, although still under the 60 per cent employment rate of the total US population. This is in line with evidence from other countries which shows that employment rates increase as duration in the country also increases.
However, a more recent study found that after living in the US for five years, refugees’ employment actually declines, despite gaining lawful permanent residency status (a green card). This study suggests that the current federal government approach to refugee resettlement, with a rapid, self-sufficiency approach, does not always offer enough resources to asylum seekers and refugees for long-term success.
Netherlands: Right to Work granted at six months
The Netherlands has something of a historical reputation for being a humanitarian haven. Since famously welcoming the Huguenots, religious and political refugees fleeing France in the 17th century, the country then saw the influx of 900,000 Belgians, many Jews and others who fled Austria and Germany during the World Wars. Thereafter, the next large wave of asylum seekers were those fleeing the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s and those fleeing the conflict in Syria in 2015/16.
In recent years, this reputation has been challenged by a rise in far-right populism which has had immigration, and a focus on Islam, at the heart of it. Some have grown deeply intolerant of newcomers, equating immigration with a rise in religious extremism and terror, and a loss of prosperity.
However, like many European countries, the Netherlands needs immigrants, not just because of low birthrates and an ageing population, but also because of its traditionally high levels of emigration. This has already caused concern among politicians and the media but is yet to emerge as an explicit driver of migration policy, including humanitarian routes, even though Dutch population growth has been largely fuelled by immigration over the past decade.
The fears stoked by the far right also do not fit with the fact that some sectors, such as agriculture and heavy industries, are largely reliant on migrant workers, and the country’s sporting and cultural life is brimming with active and engaged refugees and immigrants.
In 2022, a total of 35,535 first applications for international protection were lodged in the Netherlands, mainly by Syrian, Afghan and Turkish nationals. This is considerable increase from the 24,725 first applications seen in 2021. The overall recognition rate stood at 87.2 per cent but rose to 99 per cent for Afghans, 97 per cent for Syrians and 99 per cent for Yemenites.
Recent changes in the Right to Work
The right to work in the Netherlands is possible once a claim has been pending for at least six months. After that, an employer must obtain a declaration of reception and apply for an employment licence before the asylum seeker can start working.
Prior to November 2023, an asylum seeker could only work for a limited time, which is a maximum of 24 weeks every 12 months. However, a 2023 ruling by the Dutch Council of State will now allow asylum seekers to work for more than 24 weeks per year. The Council ruled that the 24-week requirement prevented asylum seekers from gaining effective access to the Dutch labour market. It also detracted from the European Reception Directive and is contrary to European law.
Practical barriers to work
Despite having access to the labour market after six months, in practise, it is then very hard for an asylum seeker to find work. Employers are not keen to hire asylum seekers because of the administrative burden involved and because of the limited time that they might be employed for. This might be set to slowly change. Faced with labour shortages in many sectors, employers are more motivated to recruit asylum seekers and there has been a growing discussion in the media and mong politicians as to how to facilitate labour market access. A number of Dutch businesses have already helped over 13,000 refugees enter the job market through training, mentorship, direct employment, and other activities, so there is potential to extend this to asylum seekers, drawing on the learning and experience gained so far. However, this is yet to happen.
More recently, there have been further delays to registering as an asylum seeker. Due to a high numbers of asylum applications and ongoing capacity problems at the IND, a pre-registration procedure was implemented in the last quarter of 2022. This meant it was not possible to directly submit an asylum application in Ter Apel (the Central Reception Centre where asylum seekers who enter the country by land have to register). Instead, asylum seekers had their personal basic information registered and were then transferred to a temporary shelter for ‘pre-registration.’ This then meant that they had to wait up to four months to receive an invitation to officially register their claim. This then led to further delays in being able to access work because it is only at the moment of official registration that the request for asylum is officially lodged in the Netherlands. From the end of 2022, the backlog of registrations was reduced, and registration was once again possible at Ter Apel, but for those who’d already been caught up in the pre-registration requirement, they continued to face delays.
There was also a decision in 2022 to extend the time limit for an asylum decision. This was six months but at the end of September 2022, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) decided to extend the time to decide on asylum requests to nine months and for any asylum application lodged after 27 September 2022, the time limit was extended to 15 months. On 3 February 2023, another extension of the time limit for issuing an asylum decision was published, meaning that the time limit for the decision on asylum applications lodged between 1 January 2023 and 1 January 2024 will also be 15 months.
Support available for asylum seekers
Asylum seekers who enter the Netherlands by land must apply at the Central Reception Centre in Ter Apel, where they stay for a maximum of three days. After this, the asylum seekers is transferred to a Process Reception Centre (POL), of which there are four in the country. Here, they wait till to make the official asylum application at the application centre. As soon as the asylum seeker has officially lodged an asylum application, they receive a certificate of legal stay. However, due to the lack of capacity at the POL, the so-called pre-POLs were opened (to handle ‘pre registration’). At both sites, however, asylum seekers have limited access to medical care and language lessons, and they receive no weekly allowance.
These reception centres form one of three types of accommodation for asylum seekers, the other two being temporary housing placements and more permanent housing. Once an asylum seeker has their certificate of legal stay, proving their request has been officially lodged, they are allowed to stay in the reception facility until housing has been arranged for them. There is no time limit on this but the government aims to have a maximum stay of 3.5 months after issuing a certificate of legal stay. The right to reception facilities and support ends the moment adequate housing is offered.
Part of this reception support includes a monthly payment of around €239.68 per month to cover food, clothing and personal expenses, but not public transportation or medical expenses. This is approximately less than 30 per cent of the social welfare allowance for Dutch citizens aged between 21 and 67, which was 1,195.66 for a single person as of 1 January 2023. In addition to this, reception support includes an entitlement to public transport costs to seek legal representation/ advice; recreational and educational activities; healthcare insurance; and payment towards exceptional costs.
In 2021, there was a shortage of places in the reception centres, partly because of the pandemic and partly because of the more general shortage of rented accommodation in the country. As a result, “Hotel- en accomodatieregeling” was introduced, which gave asylum seekers who were waiting to be housed the opportunity to access temporary accommodation at the same municipality. It would host the asylum seeker for a maximum of six months, after which the municipality must have found permanent accommodation for them. The arrangement, which was only open to single beneficiaries without children, entitled the asylum seeker to the basic provisions, such as a weekly allowance and access to medical care. The asylum seekers also received an additional payment of €75 per week. The benefits stopped as soon as housing was offered. The municipality receives a payment (€8,280 plus €1,000 for guidance) for every asylum seeker participating in this arrangement.
When there was a similar shortage of places in 2022, this arrangement was prolonged for an additional three months and the target group was extended from single adults to those with children and others.
In theory, vocational training for adult asylum seekers is also available. However, in practise, many have not had the chance to learn Dutch to a sufficient level to access much of it. One reason is that Dutch language classes are not compulsory for asylum seekers, but another reason is that many are taught by volunteers instead of professional teachers. Another barrier to accessing training and education is that asylum seekers do not have a right to financial study aid from the government.[i]
Ongoing political issues
In July 2023, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, announced that his coalition government was resigning over ‘insurmountable’ differences about measures to curb the number of asylum seekers in the country. The Coalition had faced the scandal of overcrowding in reception centres in 2022 in which a baby died and hundreds of others were forced to sleep out in the open in squalid conditions as the number of people seeking protection outstripped the number of beds. Even though the numbers in 2023 are not expected to be any higher than 2022, the numbers have put a strain on a housing supply that was already under strain in a densely populated country.
Arguably, the government was already a fragile four-party coalition, which has only lasted 18 months. Moreover, even though asylum had been the issue to bring the government down, some had sought to blame other foreign migrants for concerns around the housing crisis, high gas prices and inflation, such as international students and wealthier ‘expats.’[ii] However, the Dutch political crisis here highlights how an already-vulnerable group of people, such as asylum seekers, can become potentially more vulnerable in a climate where broader instability, or existing pressures in housing, health and other services, is causally linked to them in the political discourse.
In November 2023, far-right politician, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) won the Dutch General Election, promising severe restrictions on immigration and asylum and threatening to make the aforementioned risk a greater possibility.
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