Banning asylum seekers from working is both morally and economically unjustifiable

Ananya Chowdhury
A warehouse worker moves barrels using a forklift - Yuriko Nakao /Bloomberg

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Three weeks from now, millions will celebrate Passover, when under the leadership of Moses, the Jewish people were freed from tyranny under the Pharoah and sought refuge in the land of Judah. His commandments are well-known across the globe but unlike our own do not include restrictions on those fleeing persecution and setting up new lives in new lands.

Perhaps Moses should’ve set in stone that those seeking refuge have a right to a new life. Perhaps he should have said that families seeking asylum must have a chance to change their stars, to work and build businesses, to provide for their families and give back to their host country.

Fortunately for Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, our laws aren’t claimed to have been passed down from on high. And when in December 2018, the Home Secretary said that he would like to review the ban on asylum seekers working as they wait for Home Office decisions, he was moving the debate in the right direction.

Right now, asylum seekers in the UK are only able to apply for the right to work after they have been living on a meagre £5.39 per day for at least a year. Even those that do gain permission have their job opportunities restricted to a fiendishly obscure list of highly skilled professions included on the government’s Shortage Occupation list.

This list includes professionals from classical ballet dancers to bioinformaticians: unlikely livelihoods for potential asylum seekers. No other European country, the US or Canada has such a strict waiting period for asylum seekers looking for work.

The case for allowing asylum seekers and their adult dependents to work is threefold: there will be a significant net benefit to the economy, asylum seekers would be better integrated into society. It would reduce instances of forced labour and exploitation. Oh yes, and it’s popular too; 71per cent of the UK public agree with the idea.

Britain was once lauded for being the workshop of the world. Now our refusal to let vulnerable individuals utilise the tools of our workshop is not only embarrassing but counterproductive.

In entrepreneurship, he who dares, really does win. Business is the backbone, not merely of a prosperous economy, but society, gender relations and culture. Evidence reveals that risk-taking is a trait which makes normal businessmen into the likes of Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.

So it is no surprise that some of the most acclaimed enterprises have been started by immigrant refugees who have risked life and limb to get to new lands. Sergey Brin left the USSR as a boy to escape institutional anti-Semitism, he brought you Google. Daniel Aaron, an orphaned refugee from Nazi Germany and US soldier brought you Comcast. George N. Hatsopoulos, from Nazi-occupied Greece to the US and brought you a billion-pound biotechnology company; Thermo Fisher Scientific.

If just 50 per cent of those waiting to hear on their application decision were able to work full time on minimum wage, the net benefit to the economy would be £42.4 million. And this is only the short term projection; once people are able to integrate the numbers will only be higher. The Government would save on the cash support it provides while reaping the benefits of income tax and national insurance.

Individuals on both sides of the immigration debate have reasonable objections to each other’s proposals. Many are sceptical of the prospect of immigrants successfully integrating. Others, while understanding the benefits of asylum seekers working, believe it will be a pull factor attracting even more immigration. Sadly both sides are ignoring evidence in their debate.

72 per cent of asylum seekers had not known prior to arriving in the UK that they were not allowed to work. One study commissioned by the Home Office revealed that there is no link between economic rights and the destination choices of those seeking asylum. There is no credible evidence to support the right to work as a pull factor.

What’s more, social assimilation goes hand in hand with economic integration. People skills are rewarding; incentives to learn English and adopt cultural norms are bolstered by the prospect of promotion.

The Lift the Ban coalition, made up of over 150 organisations, highlights the real-life implications of the ban. Asylum seekers have had their lives transformed into something which should only be consigned to the pages of a Franz Kafka story, not modern day Britain. These are people who have often experienced maltreatment unimaginable to the average Briton today.

The OECD has found that legal barriers to employment risk people resorting to illicit work. Studies have highlighted that the experience of severely exploitative labour, including forced labour, is often unavoidable for refugees and asylum seekers in order to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families.

Having to choose between medicine and food when your creativity sits untouched and potential skills untapped is unjust. 94 per cent of respondents in a survey run by the Lift the Ban Coalition said that they would like to work if they were given permission to do so, while 52 per cent had used a food bank at some point in the past year.

The dignity of work is not just some cheap political quip to keep the Treasury’s pockets full and as we approach the Passover holiday, it is time to relearn the lessons of history and lift the ban on refugees working.

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