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24 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:18pm

Here’s a simple change that Philip Hammond can make to help refugees – and himself

By letting aslyum seekers and refugees start working, the Chancellor would end an injustice and give himself a boost too. 

By Peter Starkings

Why do governments change policy? Typically there are three reasons; popularity, cash and sometimes, just sometimes, because a change is straight forwardly the right thing to do. (In fact that last one probably happens more often than you might think.)

If you get two out of three you’re in pretty good shape. All three, and it’s probably happened already. Discovering such a change just one week ahead of the budget would be the stuff of fantasy for an under-pressure Chancellor. Well…

Last week 80 organisations led by Refugee Action joined together to call on government to lift the ban on asylum seekers finding work.

Today, people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom are only able to apply for the right to work after they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year. Even then, the few people granted permission are rarely able to work because their employment is restricted to the narrow Shortage Occupation List.

This means that people are essentially banned from working whilst they wait months, often years, for a decision on their asylum claim. Instead they are left to live on just £5.39 per day.

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So here we have a policy that costs money, forcing people to languish on benefits instead of finding meaning, and contributing to the public finances, in work – running in direct opposition to the stated logic of the government’s welfare reforms (if perhaps no longer the application). It actively stymies integration by banning asylum seekers from the single greatest arena of adult integration – the workplace, and it runs counter to what the public tell us time and again they want to see from newcomers to our country – namely an attempt to fit in and to work hard and play by the rules.

In fact, we can be more specific – British Future research found a whopping 71% of us support a change – so the popularity box is well and truly ticked.

So what about cash? Here, Global Future has looked into the fiscal implications of changing the law and, surprise surprise, if we allow people to work and pay tax instead of sit at home claiming state support it’s good for the public finances. In fact if just half could find a job paying an average wage we found that the exchequer would gain an additional £40million a year. That’s enough, by the way, to more than double the support government currently gives to communities experiencing a surge in immigration. So the cash is there too.

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So to the final question – is it the right thing to do? Here the answer is even more emphatic.

First, let’s be clear, £5.39 a day is a pittance. It is morally indefensible to trap people in that kind of poverty when the means to release them are so readily at hand.

Second, work is about much more than putting food on the table. Here’s Martha from one of the focus groups set up by Refugee Action: ‘Being here, we are not working, it’s like we’ve been put to one side, as if we are not human beings. The way they treat us like we are nobody, we are animals.” Work – again as we have been constantly reminded by the Tory administrations of the last eight years – is about dignity and self-worth. Indeed, it is a human right.

Third, as noted above, a ban on work makes integration impossible. Every day cut out from society is another step backwards – and the same thing goes for the skill base of those locked out of the job market. Long-term unemployment causes skills to drift away, puts pressure on mental health, increasing the risk of loneliness and depression, and robs people of their potential.

Next, locking people out of work will inevitably turn some towards the black market and with it the risk of forced labour and exploitation. If £5.39 a day won’t make ends meet then desperate people will look for other ways to feed their families.

And finally, let’s just remember what these people have already been through. Asylum seekers come to this country to find refuge from war and persecution. Many have seen and endured horrors few of us could imagine, Britain should be a beacon of light at the end of a long road, not another dark and brutal place to add to the list.

At this point, of course, those who oppose change will point to so-called pull factors. It’s a nice idea, they say, but if you allow people the dignity of work then more and more will all want to come. Well let’s take that head on. In fact there is not a single piece of credible evidence to support that assertion. Indeed, the studies that do exist – including one commissioned by the Home Office – show that there is little to no evidence of a link between economic rights and entitlements and the destination choices of those seeking asylum.

So an overwhelming policy case for action. And morally, undeniably, letting asylum seekers work is the right thing to do. Three boxes ticked.

More than 80 organisations have joined together to call on government to lift the ban, from businesses to think tanks to campaigners. The case is overwhelming. On Wednesday Caroline Spelman will lead a Westminster Hall debate as MPs begin to take up the case. Pressure is building. So at next week’s budget the Chancellor has an open goal – a popular policy that raises cash and has the not insignificant benefit of being straight forwardly the right thing to do.

You can sign the petition here>>>