The work regime in the UK is failing asylum seekers, placing ideology over basic decency and logic.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some 150,000 Jews reached the UK with hopes of a better life, having fled from pogroms and persecution in eastern Europe. Among them were most of my great-grandparents. They instilled in my family a sense of pride and belonging in their adopted British identity. Sadly, the country they came to love did not always reciprocate this warmth. Partly as a result of the misinformation spread by the fear of mass Jewish immigration, the UK government for the first time in the modern era introduced legislation concerning the prevention of migration, the Aliens Act (1905).
The culture created around this fear saw many, if not most, Jewish refugees barred from ‘respectable’ British life. Having to resort to backstreet, sweatshop labour, Jewish workers were often confined to a cycle of poverty in places like London’s East End. Yet, these were supposedly the lucky ones. The Aliens Act had particularly sought to prevent those who ‘could not work’ from entering the country at all.
The story of immigration to the UK in the century following the arrival of Jewish refugees is almost entirely centred on narratives around the issue of work. Asylum seekers are, depending on who you’re speaking with, simultaneously ‘work-shy’ but somehow managing to steal our jobs. As in the past, popular misconceptions have been allowed to guide policy.
Up until July 2002, it was possible for someone waiting for a decision on their asylum claim to apply for permission to work if they had been waiting six months or more. This was then removed for all but ‘exceptional cases’, something that was never further clarified. In order to comply with EU directives, a new provision was introduced in 2005 meaning that an individual seeking asylum could apply for permission to work given they had been waiting for a year or more for their decision. However, in 2010, this limited right was further restricted to only the jobs that can be found on what is called the Shortage Occupation List.
The justification for such restrictions are based on preventing a ‘pull factor’ attracting more migration to the UK. Whats more, opponents of the right to work fear that once asylum seekers are allowed to work, they would be able to invoke their Article 8 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). A provision that affords individuals protection of their private lives. The claim is that through working, those of undetermined immigration status may develop a ‘private life’ in the UK.
Neither of these arguments have any basis in reality. As detailed in Refugee Action’s recent campaign report (which can be read here) , not only has research shown there to be ‘little to no evidence’ for the idea that economic rights and entitlements impact greatly on destination choice of asylum seekers, the Immigration Act (2014) states clearly that Article 8 of the ECHR does not apply to those of ‘precarious’ immigration status.
What’s abundantly clear from the figures acquired by Refugee Action and others is that the UK pretty much stands alone in Europe on this issue, enforcing the longest wait-time before permission to work can be sought. In fact, this isn’t limited solely to Europe. Both the US and Canada have far shorter wait-periods than our own. In many other countries, not only do shorter waiting times help in smoothing the transition process from arrival in the country to establishing oneself in the local community, they’re more effective in restoring a person’s dignity. For too many individuals, not being afforded a legal route to work means a choice between the food bank and unregulated, dangerous, underpaid illegal work. Often it means both.
Rabbis from a number of communities signed onto an open letter published in the Telegraph last week. They didn’t need persuading, they were ready to support the campaign. There’s a good reason for this. Sources of our tradition teach, among other things, that one of the highest forms of tzedakah (charity) is to help someone to find a job, to be self-sufficient (see ‘8 Degrees of Giving’, R. Moses ben Maimon). However, we need not rely on historic tradition exclusively. We were not just once strangers in the land of Egypt. Much more recently, we too were strangers in the British Isles.
JCORE is but one of a coalition of 88 organisations nationwide that are calling on the government to: grant people seeking asylum and their adult dependants the right to work, unconstrained by the Shortage Occupation List, after six months of waiting for a decision on their asylum claim or further submission.