No one benefits when refugees are barred from work

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13 Nov 2018

Thangam Debbonaire is the Labour MP for Bristol West and Chair of the APPG on Refugees. This article first appeared on The Times Red Box on Monday 12 November 2018 - see here.

Why should we improve the way we treat refugees? I often make human rights arguments for better treatment, but the economic case is just as compelling.

Unfortunately, economic arguments can be obscured by heated debate, misinformation and outright lies about benefits and housing and economic migrants.

Today, (Monday 12 November 2018), I am hosting Sanctuary in Parliament 2018, to celebrate Cities of Sanctuary, such as Bristol, who have pledged to do everything they can to give refugees a warm welcome.

One of the speakers is a man called Safian, who has been waiting for an asylum decision for several years longer than the Home Office’s six-month deadline. And because of this, he is prohibited from obtaining work. This benefits nobody. Not Safian, not his local community, and certainly not the British economy.

Anyone who wants to work, should be allowed to work — I believe most reading this would agree. In some countries, such as Uganda, that includes refugees from the day they arrive. But in this country, we keep people in unemployment and stagnation, sometimes for years.

Our rules mean that asylum seekers cannot work until they are confirmed as a refugee. This affects people like Ahmed, a man I met recently, who was offered a job by a large well-known
company but was forced to turn it down.

While waiting months or years for a decision, asylum seekers are forced to live off a meagre allowance of £5.39 per day to cover everything except accommodation. In short, this system
means they contribute little or nothing to the local economy.

After 12 months, asylum seekers can apply to be allowed to work, but only for jobs on the Shortage Occupation List, which may not fit their skills and qualifications or the local job market.

This system also has huge costs to the public purse. Asylum accommodation is provided by the Home Office system, which subcontracts this to private providers. These contracts are worth a
staggering £4 billion over the next ten years, according to analysis by Asylum Matters.

And Home Office delays are exacerbating costs. At the end of 2011 there were 3,000 people who waited more than six months for a decision, rising to nearly 11,000 by mid-2018, which the
department attributes to low staffing levels.

I would like the whole system to be improved and sped up — but in the meantime, we could allow more people to do work that fits their skills and experience.

Changing this system would help people move away from publicly-funded benefits. The sad truth is that once confirmed as refugees and allowed to work, many still struggle to find employment.
One major barrier is the extended periods outside work during the limbo of the asylum process, according to research by the Refugee Council.

It is in everyone’s interest to help refugees and asylum seekers contribute to the local economy. And economic arguments aside, I personally believe we have a duty to treat people with dignity. After fleeing war, persecution and torture, a warm welcome is the least they deserve.

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