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Endless limbo: waiting for work

With delays in the system rife, asylum seekers spend many months in forced idleness until their cases are decided. Here are three people's stories.

October 03 2023, 12.26pm

Nearly two years passed before the Home Office contacted Bahar about her asylum claim. She had claimed asylum immediately on arrival in Dover and had been waiting for a response ever since.

The sun had been shining that day in July 2021 but Bahar, 53, was cold, wet and nauseous. She’d had to wade into the sea on the French side of the Channel, till the water lapped at her chest, before she could climb onto the smugglers’ boat. Then hours at sea in wet clothes, cold air whipping her body.

Two years on, the trainee lawyer advising her called to say the Home Office had sent through a questionnaire. The wait was over. Seven pages of mostly administrative questions, with a page or two to explain her “Reasons for seeking asylum”:

Nationality: Iraq

Ethnicity: Kurdish

Religion: Muslim Sunni

Previous job: Teacher

And so on. Then, questions about her reason for fleeing: What do you fear will happen if you return? What happened to make you leave your country? Could you move somewhere else? Have you ever been exploited? 

On the page, Bahar’s trauma is flattened into a few sentences: My brother would treat me very badly and physically abuse me at times I thought to commit suicide. I left Iraq on the 10th March 2016. 

In person, even when reflecting on the dark circumstances of her journey and movement across Europe, Bahar is funny and wry, always quipping. “I was born a woman and that’s my problem,” she says. Then, she lifts her trouser leg to reveal the translucent dent on the front of her right calf, where her brother stabbed her. 


Ismael needs protection and he needs to work. Nearly a year ago he flew to Heathrow with his heavily pregnant wife Sekinat and their two-year-old son. Travelling by plane cost him around £19,000 in visas, identity documents and bribes for officials in his home country – the price of avoiding the “perilous journeys” through the Mediterranean and across the Channel. He hadn’t expected the asylum process in Britain to take so long. Ismael borrowed money to pay for his family’s journey and the debt won’t wait forever, he says. 

“If I can work, I can pay back some of the money.”

Time has slowed down for 34-year-old Ismael. After escaping forced conscription and fleeing two countries, he must stand still and wait for the Home Office’s decision. His son, now three, has spent a significant portion of his short life in a hotel room in east London, the same one Bahar was taken to. Bright-eyed with a mop of dark hair and a dimpled smile, he is popular, which means kisses and hugs in a hotel full of people in a city still vulnerable to COVID outbreaks. 

Ismael half groans, half laughs. “You can’t imagine 300 people going to the lobby for lunchtime or dinnertime. My son was sick almost every month with viruses because everyone is like, playing with him, give him chocolate, kissing him. It was hard. Especially when you try to feed him at lunchtime and he is holding a chocolate in his hand. Who gave you [that]?”

Ismael’s wife, Sekinat, was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, a serious but treatable condition that requires a strict diet. The family’s fears grew when doctors said Sekinat’s unborn baby had stopped growing. Even more pressure to ensure she ate well and often. Difficult when stuck in a hotel room with a toddler, unable to cook for yourself or control what you eat each day.


Back in 2021, Bahar was given a screening interview at Dover, then driven to a chain hotel in East London where she stayed until she was attacked by a man, a fellow asylum seeker. He tried to hit her and threatened to do worse. Bahar knew where rage of this kind could go, but a manager at the hotel told her that since the attack took place offsite, they had no duty to intervene. The Home Office stepped in and relocated her to a hotel in Bath. She stayed there for a week before being transferred back to London, to a different hotel just south of the River Thames, where she has remained ever since. 


By the time Sekinat went into labour, in January this year, the family had built a small support network, beginning with the NHS hospital a five-minute walk from the East London hotel. “She had a maternity mate. She used to go every Tuesday to a women’s centre, we used to go to the children’s centre for my son. So, we used to have a busy life in London,” Ismael said. Their baby girl arrived healthy, weighing 3.1kg and after some initial reservation the little boy accepted that she was there to stay. Then with just a day’s notice, they were moved to another hotel, somewhere in the countryside beyond London. 

“That really worried me because after delivery my wife had – they call it kind of depression, after-delivery depression,” says Ismael. Occasionally he found his 26-year-old wife quietly sobbing, but in general her pain had eased and she was settling into their life in London, however temporary. 


Bahar, Ismael and Sekinat are three of the 175,000 people as of March 2023, who were waiting for a decision on their initial asylum claim. Most people wait more than six months before they receive a decision; the average time is 15 months. During this time, they are prohibited from working, at least for the first 12 months. Anyone who can prove they would otherwise be destitute is entitled to accommodation and a weekly subsistence payment. 

Before COVID the accommodation would be flats or houses in local communities, usually outside London and the South East in designated “dispersal” areas. That changed during the pandemic when hotel use for people with outstanding asylum claims rocketed. Three years ago, the Home Office was placing 1,200 people in hotels at any one time. At the end of June this year, it had risen to 50,546 people.

The restrictions on asylum seekers’ rights to housing and employment go back more than 20 years. Back then, the reasoning was that they’d only be temporary, short-term constraints while the asylum system quickly processed their claims. 

When asylum support was first introduced under Labour’s Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, charities and campaigners derided the payments as paltry even then. But the government insisted that it didn’t matter because decisions were only expected to take weeks, rather than months or years. In 2002, when Labour abolished the right to apply for a work permit after six months, it was for the same reasons. The then-minister for immigration, Beverley Hughes, said it was an “irrelevant” concession designed at a time when delays were longer. 

Today, decisions take years – and asylum support has been made even more meagre. When it was introduced, payments for adults were set at 70% of general income support rates, while asylum seeking children received the same as British children. In 2015, the government cut the money for children. Today, asylum support rates are set according to the spending habits of the poorest 10% of UK households: £47.39 a week or £9.58 a week in hotels. This is barely enough to survive. 


After a year of waiting, Bahar applied for and was granted permission to work in September 2022.Her ID card reads work permitted shortage occupation list. Bahar is most likely to qualify for work as a translator and would like to teach French, but this isn’t specified on the list. And she isn’t legally allowed to do the jobs mostly easily available to her – retail, waitressing, kitchen jobs. These jobs aren’t on the list.  

There are employers who know this. They seek out people unable to work or receive benefits, safe in the knowledge that they won’t complain for fear of jeopardising their asylum claims. People left to live in hotels for years on less than £10 a week are ripe for exploitation. 

Asylum seekers call this “black work”, which destitution and debts force many to accept. Based on what’s she heard, Bahar says such work barely pays and for the women comes with the added risk of being sexually propositioned. “I can’t do this,” she says, “I won’t”.


Every Wednesday morning, Bahar takes a bus through south London to Tower Bridge and over the River Thames to Liverpool Street, where she catches a second bus east to Whitechapel. She makes the commute there and back once a week, to volunteer at a drop-in centre led by and for people seeking asylum in Britain. 

Bahar enjoys volunteering; it keeps her busy. Her physical health has worsened in the years since she fled Iraq, but the greater loss has been her mental health. Trying to recall the English word for the name of the man who ushered her on to a small boat in the Channel she frowns, whispering words in French, in Kurdish, in Arabic. “I was smart. Now sometimes I forget what I ate for breakfast…” 

A doctor suggests stress could be affecting her memory. But, she says, she was stressed in France too and it’s only here in the UK that she feels her mind unravelling. A former schoolteacher with degrees in French, biology, and art, she fears this forgetting. Volunteering helps and for a day she has less time to dwell on the number of days and months since she last heard from the Home Office about her case. Nearly two months on from submitting her questionnaire, she’s still not heard anything.


Several months after being moved out to the hotel in the countryside, Sekinat and Ismael are still waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. “I don’t know why it takes a long time. I hope we have a decision as soon as possible because I can't wait one more year to have a decision,” says Ismael. 

He is naturally positive and inclined towards solutions, even when the odds are against him. Like Bahar, Ismael refuses to contemplate “black market work” but knows he must stay busy to avoid the mental health problems so many people experience when they are stuck in hotels, denied agency, and forced to survive on asylum support. Two days a week, he volunteers at a charity shop and a food bank. “I meet new people. I like to have a network of people. I learn the language. You catch words from there and that’s how it goes.” 

Sekinat is beginning to settle into their new home, but she worries about her children. Her son is losing weight and has developed a severe phobia of fire alarms. But he is building friendships with the other children at the hotel and is even speaking a little Spanish, since many of the others are from Latin America. Her baby daughter is weaning and needs fresh, healthy food to thrive. The hotel food is cooked offsite, often heavily processed and reheated before being served.

The couple wrest back some control of their lives by finding community wherever they go, whether that is organising residents within the hotel to challenge abusive staff and winning concessions like extra bread and cheese for their son, by volunteering, or taking their children to playgroup. For now, this is how they get through the days and weeks of uncertainty. How far this stretches out into their future, they do not know.


Six months after being moved to the countryside, Sekinat, Ismael and their children are given a day’s notice and moved to another hotel in London. There is still no decision on their asylum claim.

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