Last weekend, a young Ugandan mother was found dead in her flat in Glasgow while her one-year-old son screamed beside her body. Mercy Baguma was an asylum seeker that had been granted limited leave to remain in the UK. She was employed until her leave to remain expired, forcing her to stop working, leaving her destitute and dependent on charities for food. Her cause of death has not been established, but the tragic case has spotlighted the opinion held by many refugee rights campaigners that asylum seekers should be able to work in the UK while claiming asylum.
Asylum seekers in the UK are not here to get rich. Many of them aren’t even aware of welfare benefits upon their arrival and have only come to the UK in hope of safety. When they arrive, they begin the process of requesting the right to reside in the UK. It is due to take six months for the government to decide whether asylum seekers have the right to remain. Until the decision is made, they are given temporary housing and receive a payment of £37.75 per week, per person. This payment needs to cover clothing, food, nappies, extracurricular activities for children, school supplies, course fees, transportation costs, household necessities, feminine products and more. Five pounds a day per person to cover it all. Asylum seekers aren’t here for the money. They continue to live in poverty while claiming asylum.
These low living costs are meant to only last for six months – which itself is a long time to live on such a small ration. However, many are left waiting much longer. Figures up to March show there were 31,516 people in the UK waiting longer than six months for their application decision. If they receive a negative decision to their claim – meaning that they would need to be deported – they are able to appeal, making the process even longer. Lockdowns have made the situation even worse as the whole asylum system (housing, courts, review panels) has slowed, leaving people stuck in a state of poverty, with no end in sight.
During the time they await their claims, asylum seekers are not permitted to work in the UK. They are encouraged to volunteer for free in their communities and can apply for permission to work after 12 months of waiting, but only in “shortage” areas. They are not allowed to deploy their diverse range in much-needed professions, such as frontline healthcare roles, until they receive a positive decision. Time and time again, I have met asylum seekers that want to work and contribute their skills to society. Why aren’t they given this most basic human dignity of contributing as equals to our society that needs their talent and work ethic?
Some may argue that by allowing asylum seekers to work, we would deprive British citizens of jobs they are entitled to. But this is just xenophobic jargon quickly disarmed by examples of industry need from health and social care sectors or the need for 80,000 labourers each year in the agricultural sector to harvest British crops. Not only are we facing a labour shortfall there now due to coronavirus restrictions, but a future shortfall is predicted post-Brexit. Ironically, not only do we need foreign hands in our fields but both British farmers and consumers would be economically savvy to trust migrant workers who, based on evidence from the National Farmers’ Union, are 44 per cent more productive than British pickers, meaning cheaper produce on shelves. However, the right to work is not primarily based on productivity, but the human right to care for oneself and his or her family.
What about the accusation that by letting asylum seekers work, we will open ourselves up to an increase of people seeking asylum in the UK? A study commissioned by our very own guardian, the Home Office, showed that having access to work does not affect where a person seeks asylum. Help Refugees, an organisation that supports refugees, explains further, “Often, people have little choice in where they seek asylum. In cases where people have some degree of choice, it is primarily based on language, colonial links between their home country and the host country, having family or friends in the host country, or a belief that the host country is safe, tolerant and democratic.”
Many other countries – including Spain, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium – have made the decision to give asylum seekers the right to work after six months or less. Why hasn’t the UK done the same? A collection of charities agree that giving asylum seekers the right to work would strengthen communities, restore the dignity and mental health of those that have fled trauma, contribute to the growth of the UK economy, and help asylum seekers to avoid feeling forced into exploitation and modern slavery as a means of escape from poverty?
The next steps seem clear. There is no reason not to allow asylum seekers the right to work in the UK.