Should asylum seekers have unrestricted rights to work in the UK?

The Government is reviewing its policy on restricting asylum seekers' rights to work.

The current position

The Government is reviewing its policy on restricting asylum seekers’ rights to work.

Current policy is that, as a general rule, asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK. 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.

If granted, permission to work only allows asylum seekers to take up jobs on the UK’s official Shortage Occupation List. It expires once the asylum claim has been finally determined (ie when all appeal rights are exhausted). Asylum seekers’ dependent family members are not allowed to work.

Calls to change the policy

The UK’s policies have attracted criticism for over a decade, including from NGOs, trade unions, churches and some Parliamentarians. Calls for change have tended to focus on:

  • reducing the length of time that asylum seekers must wait before 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 (such as lack of cooperation from the authorities in their country of origin).

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

  • benefit the UK economy and reduce costs to the taxpayer
  • alleviate some of the difficulties that asylum seekers can face during the asylum determination 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
  • reduce vulnerability to destitution and exploitation through working illegally

The justifications for restricting asylum seekers’ employment rights have emphasised concerns that giving more favourable rights might act as a ‘pull-factor’ to the UK. Campaigners have argued that there is little credible evidence to support this assertion.

International comparisons

The combination of a 12-month waiting period for eligibility to work and limiting opportunities to the Shortage Occupation List makes the UK’s policy one of the most restrictive amongst comparable states.

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

  • Commons Research Briefing SN01908
  • Author: Melanie Gower
  • Topics: Asylum