Safe but not free: how the UK has capped the dignity of people seeking asylum

Despite Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights holding the right to dignity to be indispensable, this is not a reality for thousands of people seeking asylum in the UK. Imagine having to flee your home, and, upon finding sanctuary, you are forced by law to put your life on hold for years while bureaucratic structures decide your fate. Your confidence diminishes and your skills deteriorate while you remain dependent on small handouts provided by the same system that has limited you in the first place. You want to work and provide for yourself and your family, to live a dignified life, but you are told to just wait.

Uthman* claimed asylum in the UK in 2017 and is still waiting to learn his fate:

“I would like to work so I can get myself out of the situation that I am in now. I am sitting at home all day. I would also like to work so that I can finally begin to integrate into society here. I want to learn the laws of this country, I want to learn about the work environment in this country, the values of the people in this country, I want to meet people, I want to be able to support myself financially. But because I can’t work I can’t do any of these things.

I am constantly thinking about my asylum claim and the long wait. If I worked, I might be able to occupy myself a bit and not constantly worry about the unknown.”

Although, in theory, English domestic law says that those seeking asylum can apply to work after they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year (i.e. if the delay is not deemed to be their fault), there are clearly cracks in a system that forces vulnerable people to live in poverty, which, in turn, can force  people into modern slavery.

Even in the event that approval is given, those seeking asylum cannot be self-employed but are restricted to jobs on the ‘Shortage Occupation List’. The jobs on this list are highly specialised, meaning, in practice, that a very small number of those seeking asylum can apply for these jobs. Occupations found on this list include hydrogeologist, nuclear medicine scientist, ballet dancer and executive chef (where the pay is at least £29,570 per year after deductions for accommodation, meals, etc. costs).

Unable to work, people seeking asylum in the UK are given a mere £37.75 per week, averaging at £5.39 per day. This income is inherently debilitating, especially for those who, on some days, may have to spend all their money on travelling to an interview and are, as a result, not even able to eat.

Malak* was recently granted status, but was banned from working for over one and half years as she waited for a decision on her asylum claim:

“Not having any money was the biggest challenge for me. There were times when I couldn’t afford to buy food or pay for my basic needs. I was forced to borrow money from people. I felt helpless.

My situation took a heavy toll on my mental health. I felt like a burden on other people, this was just too much for me.”

Legislative changes in the UK have increased the barriers for people seeking asylum to have their own income, while the waiting time for an application decision has significantly increased (14,528 people were waiting over 6 months by mid-2018). The Lift the Ban campaign estimates an economic gain of £42.4million as a result of additional tax revenues and savings, if those seeking asylum are allowed to work.”

Tried and Tested:

Breadwinners is an ambitious grassroots charity set up in April 2016. Our aim is to empower refugees through entrepreneurship, employment, work experience, training and mentoring whilst providing Londoners with the best organic artisan bread. We also offer work experience for young people seeking asylum in the UK through our ‘Risers Programme’. This programme encourages young people to integrate and gain work experience which will benefit them in the future. A trained mentor is assigned to each individual to guide them through the UK job market and to support them as they explore their future career options.

At its core, Breadwinners supports refugees to build the foundations for a career by developing their skills, confidence and language abilities. A key pillar in the Breadwinners’ mission is to support greater ease in integration for people upon being granted refugee status in the UK.

What are the benefits of allowing people seeking asylum to work?

Studies show that people seeking asylum find it more difficult to join the labour market if they have had an extended period of unemployment while waiting for their interview with the Home Office.

Providing an opportunity to work for those seeking asylum would encourage faster integration into social and economic life in the UK and prevent future strain on the social care system. This would not only contribute to the UK’s economic growth, but would also be a source of relief for thousands of people waiting a long period of time for their asylum decision.

Without any alternatives, living on just over £5 a day puts people in poverty, where they are unable to support themselves and are forced to use food banks. These concerns are also heavily linked to issues of self-esteem and mental health. Research highlights a strong link between depression and unemployment which is further exacerbated in people not having strong support networks around them. Yet, many people seeking asylum in the UK have skills, knowledge and the motivation to work.

The declining mental health of those seeking asylum is, in many ways, founded upon the employment glass ceiling.

Leila* was recently granted refugees status after waiting for over three years:

“Having to wait each week for just over £37 in support was an awful feeling. And the money provided didn’t get me very far. I would go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest food. Sometimes, I would buy clothes from the charity shop and, even then, I would have to cut down on food that week just so I can afford to buy some items of clothing.

After getting my status I started applying for jobs straight away… working has changed my life. I am mentally in a much better place. I feel free and independent again. I pay my own rent and my own bills. At the end of each month, I don’t have much money left over but I like to be able to do my own thing and look after myself, budget, and make my own decisions.”

As a result of being out of work for so long, many suffer from a lack of confidence and can even lose the skills they previously had, and may struggle as a result to find work for a long period after being granted refugee status. Once again, this can mean that refugees need financial support from the government longer than would have been the case if they had been permitted to work from the outset.

The bottom line:

The ongoing success and popularity of Breadwinners highlights the fact that the ability of those seeking asylum to work in the UK could be life-changing. The evidenced-based Lift the Ban campaign aims to change policies that were altered since 2002, where right to work was removed for those seeking asylum in the UK. The coalition is calling on the UK Government to give people seeking asylum and their adult dependents the right to work unconstrained by the Shortage Occupation List, and after they have waited six months for a decision on their initial asylum claim or further submission. We are calling on you to act in support of the Lift the Ban campaign!

What you can do:

Ways you can support the Lift the Ban campaign:

  1. Sign the petition! Here

  2. Stay informed: Read the full report here and understand all repercussions of this policy and the benefits of change to all.  

  3. Spread the word! The ability to change the lives of thousands of people seeking asylum and help inform the kind of society we want to be, lies in the policy change. More signatures means greater pressure on the UK government to act in the best interests of everyone.  

Ways you can support our work at Breadwinners:

  1. Buy our bread- it’s delicious! We can be found at Primrose Hill market on Saturdays and Victoria Park & Chatsworth Road markets on Sundays. Please check here for our up to date market locations.

  2. Donate. By donating you can support another programme of young risers to build their confidence and develop their skills. You donation can also go towards setting up more market stalls, providing jobs to more refugees.

  3. Spread the word! If you like our bread, projects or ethos, tell your friends and communities. Word of mouth or sharing posts on social media is a free and valuable resource.

*Uthman, Malak and Leila kindly shared their experiences with us as part of the Lift the Ban campaign which is calling on the Government to allow people seeking asylum the right to work. We have used pseudonyms to protect their identity.

Post photo: two of our amazing Breadwinners at a pop-up market at Paddington Central in August 2018.