Last month, the number of asylum seekers waiting for a year or longer for their application to be considered has crossed 100,000 - theoretically, enabling many of them to work legally in the UK.
But claims that this amounts to the UK softening its dysfunctional right-to-work regime and creating a “pull factor” for economic migrants pretending to seek asylum is false, according to key NGOs in the sector.
In an interview for Sky News, Karl Williams, Deputy Research Director at the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank, claimed that being able to apply for the right to work after waiting 12 months for an asylum application to be processed was, “clearly acting as a massive pull factor for people coming here."
“The vast majority of people seeking asylum in the UK are effectively banned from getting a job and it’s incorrect to say or infer people are automatically given the right to work after 12 months,” said Tim Naor Hilton, Chief Executive of Refugee Action.
The UK continues to have the harshest restrictions on the right to work of any country in Europe. In Austria and Canada people can work immediately, in Sweden people need to wait one day, in Portugal it’s seven days, in Italy it’s two months, Germany three months, and in Ireland, France and Spain, people can work after six months. The UK, by contrast, insists on housing asylum seekers in converted hotels, barring them from work for at least 12 months and forcing onto them a pitiful allowance at the taxpayer’s expense - instead of letting them work and pay taxes. Once granted the permission to work in the UK, asylum seekers can then only apply to a restricted set of jobs, further
“There is no proof that access to the labour market acts as a ‘pull factor’ for people seeking asylum,” said Hilton. He added that the Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee has repeatedly asked Ministers to present evidence for their claims that the right to work is a pull factor. “We are still waiting for this to be shared,” he said.
The “pull factor” myth has been repeatedly debunked, including by the Home Office itself, who published a report in 2020 that said the right to work is not a factor considered by people when deciding where to seek protection. What it showed instead was that people are likely to go where they have family, friends and community.
Doctors in UK kept unemployed
Even when an asylum seeker is granted permission to work, there is no guarantee they will be able to find a job, according to Ros Gowers, coordinator of Evesham Vale Welcomes Refugees. “The restrictions placed on where people can work (via the Shortage Occupation List) and the near impossibility of obtaining a DBS for an asylum seeker to work in the care sector, means that in practice few of them have actually found paid work,” she said. This was despite them being “ready and willing to do so.”
In October, an investigation by The Lead found cases of medical professionals, including doctors, who were still waiting to receive permission to work - despite their skills being desperately needed by the NHS. A YouGov poll in 2022 found an overwhelming proportion of voters, including four in five Conservative voters, supported liberalising the right to work.
There is also a strong economic case for changing the UK’s policy. Research by The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) in 2023 found that granting the right to work to all asylum seekers would increase tax revenues by £1.3 billion, reduce government spending by £6.7 billion and would add around £1.6 billion to GDP each year. The UK currently has just under a million job vacancies, with one in ten businesses reporting labour and skills shortages.
“It’s disappointing that people who want to ban people from working decide to use inflammatory language to make their point. Such rhetoric must be reined in and replaced with a sensible and humane debate on the facts,” said Hilton.
The Centre for Policy Studies is one of a number of right-wing think tanks housed at 57 and 55 Tufton Street, including pro-Brexit, Libertarian and climate sceptic organisations. In 2022, Transparify, a project to encourage greater accountability and transparency in UK think tanks, gave The Centre for Policy Studies its lowest “E” rating, making it one of the four least transparent think tanks in terms of its funding.
The government is under pressure from right-wing MPs and anti-immigration groups following the publication of statistics showing that net migration to the UK was 745,000 in 2022. The mythical “pull factor” has also been used to defend human rights abuses. In March of this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that exempting child asylum seekers from incarceration in detention centres would encourage more people to come to the UK.
“The fact is the right to work is good for people, communities and the economy, which is why it’s backed by businesses, recruiters, economists, unions, faith groups, MPs from all parties and refugee NGOs,” said Hilton. “It’s time the new Home Secretary lifts the ban.”