Documents to download

The current position

The Government is reviewing its policy on asylum seekers’ rights to work in the UK.

The current position is that, as a general rule, 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, reflecting the current eligibility criteria for a skilled work visa. Some shortage occupations at lower skill levels might be added to the List when the new skilled worker visa launches next year.

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.

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.

In June 2020 the High Court granted permission for a judicial review of the current policy. 

It 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

The UK’s permission to work 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 allows asylum seekers to work immediately; in the USA they are eligible to work after six months. 

Documents to download

Related posts

  • An analysis of asylum statistics and trends in the UK and EU countries. Statistics on asylum seekers and refugees in the UK are published by the Home Office, while statistics on asylum in EU28 countries are published by Eurostat. These statistics contain data on the number of people applying for asylum, the outcomes of asylum applications, and the number of people being resettled to the UK. This edition contains a new section on asylum applications and Channel crossings in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • The use of hotels as temporary asylum accommodation has recently increased. This has been due to issues with some asylum accommodation contracts and, more recently, measures to limit the risk of spreading Covid-19.