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Current position

The policy restricting asylum seekers’ rights to work in the UK has been under review since 2018.

The current position is that, generally, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They can only apply for permission to work if:

  • they have waited over 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim or for a response to a further submission for asylum; and
  • they are not considered responsible for the delay in decision-making.

The Home Office is unable to provide data on the number of asylum seekers granted permission to work.

Permission to work only allows asylum seekers to take up jobs on the UK’s shortage occupation list. Those jobs are at ‘graduate level’ or above.

Permission to work expires once a final decision has been made on the asylum claim (that is, when there is no further opportunity to appeal).

Asylum seekers’ dependent family members cannot apply for permission to work.

Two recent judicial review cases have found aspects of the Home Office’s policy guidance unlawful. This is because it fails to recognise the possibility of making exceptions to the general policy to restrict permission to work to shortage occupation list jobs. The Home Office must now review its guidance, but the judgments do not imply that a broader change of policy on restricting permission to work is required.

Calls to change the policy

The UK’s permission to work policies have attracted criticism for over a decade. NGOs, trade unions, churches, and some Parliamentarians, amongst others, have called for change.

The current policy has been described as providing an “illusory” right to work for most asylum seekers in practice. This is because of the effect of the shortage occupation list restriction.

Campaigners tend to focus their demands on:

  • reducing the length of time for becoming eligible to apply for permission to work (commonly, to six months);
  • lifting the shortage occupation list restriction; and
  • allowing refused asylum seekers to work, if there is a temporary obstacle preventing their departure from the UK.

Suggested advantages of extending asylum seekers’ rights to work include that it would:

  • benefit the UK economy and reduce costs to the taxpayer;
  • ease some of the difficulties that asylum seekers can face during the asylum process, such as social and economic exclusion, de-skilling, low self-esteem and poor mental health;
  • improve asylum seekers’ integration and employment prospects in the event of a positive asylum decision; and
  • reduce asylum seekers’ vulnerability to destitution and exploitation as an illegal worker.

People who support more restrictive policies tend to raise concerns that more favourable rights might act as a ‘pull-factor’ to the UK. Asylum rights campaigners counter that there is little credible evidence to support this belief.

International comparisons

UK policy is more restrictive than those in several comparable countries. This is because of the combination of the 12-month waiting period for eligibility to work and the shortage occupation list rule.

EU law requires Member States to grant asylum seekers access to their labour market after they have been waiting for nine months for a decision on their claim. Member States can apply more favourable provisions and/or grant access to the labour market subject to conditions (and many do). Beyond the EU, Canada and Australia allow asylum seekers to work immediately; in the USA they are eligible to work after six months. 

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