Researchers found the UK could save £70 million if asylum seekers were allowed to work

A lukewarm welcome.
A lukewarm welcome.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Attending to the financial needs of asylum seekers entering the UK isn’t nearly as costly as leaving them in the rough.

That’s according to a working paper (pdf) by the University of Warwick’s Economic and Social Research Council, which argues that allowing asylum seekers to work, and providing them more economic aid, would save the British government roughly £70 million ($89 million).

Before 2002, asylum seekers could apply for work if they had been waiting for six months or more for decision on their claim. But after receiving a record number of asylum application in 2002 (84,132), the then-Labour government passed a law that prevented asylum seekers from working while their claim was being processed. To comply with its human rights commitments, the government amended the law so asylum seekers could apply for permission to work if they had been waiting for over 12 months for a decision on their claim. In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government restricted the jobs available to asylum seekers; if they are given permission to work, they could only take up work for positions on the UK’s official shortage occupation list.

Successive governments have maintained that allowing asylum seekers to work would blur the distinction between asylum and economic migration—and encourage fraudulent asylum claims. While their claim is being processed, each asylum seeker is expected to live on a weekly allowance of just £37.

In the meantime, more asylum seekers have turned to charity to cover the costs of basic needs like food and clothing. The British government spends an estimated £173.6 million on accommodation and support payments to asylum seekers. Researchers from the University of Warwick estimate that the government could save around £70 million a year if 25% of all asylum seekers had a job and slightly more financial support.

Researchers suggest that boosting financial support for asylum seekers to approximately 70% of the Jobseeker’s Allowance rate—the welfare payments given to the unemployed—would add just 0.01% to the government’s total welfare bill.

“The government should give asylum seekers more money because keeping them in poverty has all kinds of negative social implications beyond simply making the lives of asylum seekers difficult,” said Lucy Mayblin, assistant professor at the University of Warwick and co-author of the paper.

Making life more comfortable for asylum seekers doesn’t encourage more migration, according to previous research co-authored by Mayblin, who describes the current government’s policy as “politically motivated” and not cost-effective. To the contrary, other research has found that the longer asylum seekers wait for a work permit (Britain’s wait is the longest in Europe), the more welfare-dependent they become.

“Ultimately, it’s costly and cruel to stop people who are able and eager to work from doing so and to instead leave them reliant on a pitiful level of support that means they struggle to feed and clothe their children,” said Judith Dennis, policy manager at the Refugee Council, who was not involved in the study. “People who are seeking refuge here are usually extremely keen to give back to the society that’s welcomed them. It seems obvious that we should allow them to enrich our communities, culture and country by permitting them to work.”