Relax rules on asylum seekers working in UK, say leading artists

A group of actors, artists and other notable figures including Jodie Whittaker, Jude Law, Anna Friel and Antony Gormley have made a joint appeal to the government to relax the strict laws barring people seeking asylum in the UK from paid work.

The letter to the Guardian, signed by 39 people also including the author Michael Morpurgo and the actors Freema Agyeman, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes and Miranda Richardson, said that for many of those involved, it was their first such appeal to the government.

“The issue we want to see action on feels so urgent, so plainly unjust, and so easy to reconcile that we have been compelled to speak out,” they said.

Under current rules, asylum seekers can only work after waiting at least 12 months for their claim to be processed. Even then, they can only take roles on the government’s shortage occupation list, which includes nurses but otherwise mainly experienced or highly specific roles such as ballet dancers, orchestral musicians and oil and gas engineers.

While the Home Office aims to process asylum applications within six months, about half take longer. In the interim, people have to either rely on assistance or try and subsist on a government allowance of £5.39 a day.

The letter, organised by the actors Juliet Stevenson and Jamie Bamber, said the result of the policy is that most asylum seekers “are forced into poverty, destitution and homelessness”.

“Their skills are wasted, their individual life ambitions stunted, their days confined to either the four walls of their accommodation or to the streets they sleep on,” it said.

The letter called for the rules to be changed so asylum seekers can take any job after six months. This is the position advocated by a campaign called Lift the Ban, made up of 80 organisations including non-profits, thinktanks, businesses and faith groups.

In October, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said Labour was backing this six-month policy.

The letter, signatories to which also include the actors Olivia Williams, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, as well as the lawyers Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands, said the current policy harmed the UK as well as those denied work.

“We are denying this country the immense skills, aptitude and talents of the people who reach our shores. We are preventing people seeking asylum from integrating with and contributing to our communities. Britain has a proud history of embracing people from different backgrounds, but that history is being undermined by our government’s policy on asylum,” it said.

“We urge the government to heed the calls of the more than 160 charities, businesses and faith groups who have called on them to lift the ban on work for people seeking asylum, and in so doing create a stronger Britain, a more diverse workforce and prosperous communities.”

The immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, has said there is “much merit” to the idea of changing the current system, but ministers need to consider any changes very carefully.