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In the context of an immigration system plagued with substantial delays and inefficiencies, allowing asylum seekers to obtain employment while awaiting resolution of their claims emerges as a potential strategy to mitigate the challenges faced by asylum seekers, all while helping the UK economy.

Despite a substantial influx of asylum applications in the UK – amounting to 55,146 in 2021/2022 alone – individuals in this situation are currently not permitted to work while awaiting decisions. Instead, they receive just £6.43 per day to meet their essential living costs. This figure not only fails in enabling migrants to attain a reasonable standard of living, but also constitutes a considerable and inefficient government expenditure. More than that, despite the Home Office’s assertion that asylum determinations typically require around six months, a staggering 70% of applicants had not received a decision on their asylum claims within this time frame in 2022, leaving them with minimal support for multiple months.

Already, the ‘Lift the Ban’ coalition has gained substantial support after presenting the Home Office with a petition signed by over 180,000 people calling on the Government to lift the work ban. Indeed, a poll from March 2022 shows that 81% of the public support the right to work for people seeking asylum.

The UK’s restrictive approach to migrant working rights stands as an anomaly among the majority of Western countries. Nearly all other countries already afford asylum seekers the opportunity to support themselves at an earlier stage and with fewer restrictions. Notably, migrants are able to work immediately in Canada, and after six months in the US, while no European country besides the UK enforces an indefinite waiting period on the right to work. For instance, Spain has no labour market test or job restrictions after 6 months, while Denmark prepares asylum seekers for the job market with training in skills, language and culture.

Despite this, the Home Office maintains that a change of policy would heighten ‘pull factors,’ resulting in “more people making dangerous journeys to enter our country illegally.” The prospect of employment incentivises more to undertake illegal journeys to the UK. However, this view lacks substantiating evidence. Evidence from a Lift the Ban report in 2020 suggests that 72% of those who were or are still seeking asylum were unaware before coming to the UK that asylum seekers were prohibited from working. If the majority of migrants are uninformed about working restrictions in the UK, it is unconvincing to argue that allowing asylum seekers to work would significantly amplify ‘pull factors’ in practice.

Moreover, even if there is a marginal increase in pull factors, the considerable economic and societal benefits of this policy change – as well as the ethical motivations behind it – outweigh this limited negative consequence.

First, granting asylum seekers the right to work while awaiting the outcome of their claims enhances the integration of migrants into the UK’s society. This is demonstrated by a survey undertaken in 2018 by Migrants Resource Centre asking migrants where they learn the most about British community and values – by far the most popular response was ‘in the workplace.’ Work eliminates the extended period of uncertainty which asylum seekers experience by transforming them into active members of society.

Second, employment acts as an incentive for asylum seekers to immerse themselves in the UK’s culture, likely reducing language barriers as workers learn English to contribute in the workplace, thereby promoting the social and cultural dimensions of integration.

Third, the right to work also encourages self-sufficiency, autonomy and independence among asylum seekers, which may improve their mental health. Given the uniquely vulnerable state of asylum seekers, who have often endured dangerous journeys and traumatic experiences, promoting independence through active participation in the UK economy and society is crucial.

The economic implications of allowing asylum seekers to work are also significant. Estimates suggest that the UK economy could gain millions of pounds every year the ban were lifted. More significantly, lifting the ban would also alleviate the financial burden on the government, as asylum seekers, empowered by disposable income from their own work, no longer rely solely on government support and provision. In 2022/23, Home Office spending on asylum rose by 87% to £3.97 billion – a significant cost to the government and UK taxpayers. More than that, asylum seekers may also address critical skills shortages in certain sectors, such as health and social care. A seventh of asylum seekers from a 2020 skills audit already had experience working in these areas.

In helping asylum seekers integrate into and contribute to British society, granting the right to work emerges as a powerful catalyst. It is not simply a way to help asylum seekers get by; it is a boon for the entire UK economy waiting to be unleashed. It is beyond time to lift the ban.


Mia Kadyan is undergoing work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not those of Bright Blue. [Image: Gerd Altmann]