Lifting the prohibitions on asylum seekers working might save the UK economy billions annually, according to a landmark new report.
The Government is under pressure to abolish the restriction on allowing asylum seekers to work after a groundbreaking new analysis showed that doing so would boost the UK economy’s GDP by £1.6 billion annually.
MPs from all parties and pressure organizations have pushed No. 10 to repeal the law in order to spur economic growth, address labor shortages, and assist asylum seekers who are backed up in the UK’s asylum system.
Asylum seekers are currently only permitted to work under a limited set of circumstances and after more than a year has passed since filing their claim.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), in an analysis shared exclusively with i, reveals the enormous cost of the policy to the UK economy, estimating that allowing all asylum seekers in the country to work could save the government a total of £6.7 billion annually, increase tax revenue by £1.3 billion annually, and increase the UK’s annual GDP by £1.6 billion.
Allowing asylum seekers who have been waiting six months for their claim, rather than straight away, could lead to economic gains of £4.4bn each year, a tax revenue increase of £880m and additions of £1bn to GDP, the analysis found. A bill, proposed by the SNP, which would allow asylum seekers to work after waiting six months for their claim is currently in the early stages of parliamentary scrutiny.
MPs from all of the major parties, including the Conservatives, threw their weight behind a policy change, with Tory MP Ben Everitt saying the analysis showed “just how beneficial” scrapping the ban could be, “not just by doing the right thing and supporting vulnerable people like the compassionate country that we are, but also in savings to the taxpayer.”
“Genuine asylum seekers have come to the UK to rebuild their lives and create a positive future for themselves, so it’s only right they should be able to play their part in our economy,” he told i.
“My local businesses are telling me they have jobs to fill. It would be ridiculous to continue keeping people in hotels, when they could be contributing to society, making a living for themselves and boosting our economy.”
He added: “This new analysis shows just how beneficial this can be, not just by doing the right thing and supporting vulnerable people like the compassionate country that we are, but also in savings to the taxpayer.”
Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a Labour MP, has said that the research showed giving asylum seekers the right to work “would be a win-win.”
“The current ban holds back our economy and leaves too many people facing destitution and exploitation,” she said. “It is rooted in politics, not pragmatism. If the Government was interested in solutions rather than scapegoating, they would be lifting the ban on asylum seekers working, not trying to effectively ban people from seeking asylum altogether.”
The Labour Party has refused to comment on whether it would make asylum seeker work part of its manifesto for the next election, although leader Sir Keir Starmer has previously indicated he would support a change the current rules.
Carol Monaghan, a senior SNP MP, claimed that the ban was “a clear example of the Government’s hostile immigration environment” which is “economically unsound and morally unjustifiable.”
“Access to the labour market would also afford these individuals dignity and respect, allowing them to better integrate into communities and contribute positively to society. The current work ban instead sees asylum seekers often pushed into exploitative situations, exacerbating the trauma many have already endured,” she said.
“The fact that asylum seekers’ valuable skills remain untapped by the UK Government is all the more astounding in the context of the country’s current labour shortages. Businesses in the hospitality sector are facing closure due to recruitment issues, whilst at the same time we have asylum seekers who are desperate to work. This makes no logical sense and has an extremely negative impact on our local economies.”
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said the figures “confirm what we already knew: that giving asylum seekers the right to work is not only the moral, but also the economically responsible thing to do.” He argued that changing the policy would help manage the cost of the asylum system in the UK and bring down the backlog of cases.
Benali Hamdache, Green Party migration and refugee support spokesperson, also said that giving asylum seekers the right to work “should be a no-brainer” and that the new figures “should be the wake-up call to follow the lead of countless other European countries”.
“Polling shows that the public overwhelmingly are in support. Study after study has shown the positive impacts on well-being, communities and the economy,” he said.
Under current legislation, asylum seekers can only work when their claim has been outstanding for 12 months through no fault of their own, except under exceptional circumstances. After this time, they can only take up a role on the Shortage Occupation List, which includes roles in healthcare, social care and science, making the UK’s approach the most restrictive of comparable countries.
The Government argued that allowing asylum seekers to work would enable them to “bypass work visa rules”, and have said that the purpose of the policy is to create a “clear distinction between economic migration and asylum”.
Conservative MP Sally Ann Hart suggested that a distinction could be made, with those who claim asylum after arriving by official means, rather than small boats, allowed to work “as soon as possible”.
“There is a valid argument that those arriving through safe and legal routes should be able to work as soon as possible – following any necessary checks. These are people who need our protection. Those who come here illegally, including via small boats across the Channel, should not be allowed to trump UK legal processes,” she said. “Economic migrants can apply for a work visa under our immigration rules. Our wider immigration policy would be undermined if migrants could bypass work visa routes by lodging unfounded asylum claims.”
Successive Governments have also maintained that easing work restrictions would act as a “pull factor”, drawing more people to make the treacherous journey across the Channel because of greater economic activity.
They contend that it might lead to an increase in phony applications from those looking for employment rather than safety.
But Refugee Action, which has long campaigned on the “Lift The Ban” campaign, asserts that there hasn’t been any convincing proof of the pull effect and that most of the asylum seekers they’ve spoken to weren’t aware of UK work regulations when they applied to come to the UK.
Cross-party political organisations, ranging from the neoliberal research groups to refugee charities, joined calls from MPs for the ban to be lifted following the new analysis.
Conservative think-tanks Bright Blue and the Adam Smith Institute were among those calling for a change to the policy. Maxwell Marlow, director of research at the Adam Smith Institute said that letting asylum seekers work was a “vital part of tackling our skills gap in all sectors of the economy” as well as improving integration to the UK.
“Instead of locking talented and desperate people in hotel rooms up and down the country, the Government could earn dividends from businesses and communities by cutting the cost of welfare, accommodation, and other administrative costs,” he said. “All they need to do is simply let people work.”
Mikhail Korneev, researcher at Bright Blue said: “In the current economic climate, the decision to prevent asylum seekers who have been waiting for a decision for more than six months from entering the labour market is nonsensical. There are major labour and skill shortages in all industries, including the healthcare sector. The UK needs to fill in these vacancies, and asylum seekers have the talents to help Britain.”
Maria Stephens, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, described the ban as “senseless” and said its cost was “staggering”. She suggested that the money garnered by changing the policy could be put towards a pay rise for NHS workers.
“The Government’s hostility to people seeking asylum is costing the taxpayer a fortune and ruining the lives of tens of thousands of refugees stuck in limbo. It must lift the ban now.”
Heather Rolfe, research director for non-partisan think-tank British Future, also said that changing the law would save taxpayer money and help fill key work staff shortages across the UK, as well as helping asylum seekers to get to “build relationships with colleagues, improve their English and integrate into our society”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Asylum seekers can take up jobs on the shortage occupation list if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months or more, through no fault of their own.
“Allowing asylum seekers the right to work sooner would undermine our wider economic migration policy by enabling migrants to bypass work visa rules.”