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Allowing asylum seekers the right to work after six months is common-sense

4 min read

Today, the Nationality and Borders Bill will return to the House of Commons, where MPs will vote yes or no on amendments added in the House of Lords.

One of these amendments was tabled by me and supported by peers across the Lords. If passed, it will give people seeking asylum the right to work after they have waited six months or more for a decision on their claim.

It’s a common-sense change. It would be a boost for the Treasury, recruiters and not least asylum seekers themselves, who often wait years for a decision on their claim while battling poverty, isolation and mental ill health.

This 'pull factor' argument is simply not supported by the facts

The government maintains a ban on employment for asylum seekers – introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2002 – because it says that giving people the right to work will encourage more people to come to the UK.

But this “pull factor” argument is simply not supported by the facts.

Evidence for it remains unclear, unshared or – as many suspect – non-existent. A challenge to minsters from the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee to show proof of a link between the employment ban and a pull factor has so far gone unanswered.

Publicly available and up-to-date figures show no correlation. If there was, asylum migration would look very different to how it does.

Certainly, 28,300 refugees wouldn’t have risked their lives crossing the Channel in boats in 2021 to come to the UK where they cannot work. They would have headed to Sweden, which received just 10,000 applications for refugee status, where they can work after one day.

The 62,000 people who claimed asylum in Spain last year, where they must wait six months to work, would have simply hopped across the border to Portugal, whose 1,350 asylum applicants can get a job after one week.

And the people who applied for asylum in France (103,000) where they must wait six months to work, could have just stopped in – or headed to – Italy (44,000), where they can work after two months.

That some countries with stricter labour access often receive more asylum seekers – while in many cases fewer refugees go to countries with more relaxed rules around work – shows the lack of any link between application numbers and employment rules.

What the overwhelming evidence does point to as “pull factors” are those things that make almost all of us feel safe: our families, our friends, our communities, language, a sense of shared history, a country with a stable government and a respect for human rights.

The government’s argument, however unfounded, is powerful. At a time when Channel crossings dominate headlines, the “pull factor” plays on fears that any perceived loosening of policy around asylum will lead to all the world’s refugees arriving in the UK.

We have an environment in which ministers are so nervous of appearing soft that even a widely beneficial, evidence-based, common-sense policy such as the right to work is rejected because it might make Britain a magnet. Politically, the government feels it’s far less risky to be wrong.

But this is wrong – and while the negative and costly effects of this ban may not seem obvious, they are real.

The ban costs the taxpayer an estimated £210m a year, it leaves asylum seekers in poverty and institutionally dependent, it leaves businesses up and down the country without extra hands at a time of record job vacancies, it takes a terrible toll on people’s mental health and hobbles any attempt at integration and future employment success.

To alleviate ministers’ fears around increased numbers of asylum seekers arriving in the UK, baked in to the amendment is a clause that after three years the government can investigate whether the right to work has encouraged more applications.

Good policy making must be based on robust evidence and be transparent so it can be properly and comprehensively scrutinised.

I hope MPs voting on the right to work amendment are guided by the evidence to bring into law a common-sense change that will benefit not only refugees, but our economy and society.


Baroness Stroud is a Conservative peer. 

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