The economic case for allowing asylum seekers to work – and giving them more cash

A refugee family, recently arrived in Glasgow. Jane Barlow PA Wire

Most asylum seekers in the UK do not have the right to work. But our new research has calculated that allowing asylum seekers to get a job while they wait for their application to be processed, could save the government up to £173.6m and help prevent vulnerable people from living in destitution.

In order not to violate its human rights commitments, the government is obliged to provide welfare support to asylum seekers. Welfare payments are delivered through a separate system to the payments provided to unemployed citizens, and are set purposefully low. The government justifies the low level of support by arguing it won’t act as “pull” factor for economic migrants who might claim asylum in order to access benefits.

Charities and some parliamentarians who support asylum seekers have been critical of this policy and have been arguing for many years that asylum seekers should both have the right to enter the labour market, and should receive welfare payments in line with at least 70% of Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Poverty and destitution are very common among asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers in the UK. Refused asylum seekers can apply for what’s called “Section 4” support if they are complying with certain Home Office rules, which include somewhere to live and a cash allowance.

The asylum support rate is currently £36.95 for asylum seekers and £35.39 for refused asylum seekers who comply with certain rules. This is currently calculated based on the weekly expenditure of the poorest 10% of British households, minus any non-essential purchases. Asylum seekers are living on an income which is just a third of the income of the poorest 10% of British households.

In research published in the spring of 2016, we looked at whether there was any evidence that access to benefits and the labour market was acting as an economic “pull factor” for migrants coming to the UK. We found no empirical support for this assertion. Other research has found that the threat or experience of destitution for refused asylum seekers does not lead to increased deportations.

Low levels of welfare support and barriers to working are thought to encourage those who are here to leave, though in practice they mostly increase levels of poverty and destitution. This is particularly the case for people whose application for asylum has been refused and they are waiting for an appeal decision or to be deported. The impacts of such deprivations upon asylum seekers include mental health problems, high levels of hunger, maternal and infant mortality, and difficulty navigating the legal process.

The current cost of asylum support

In our new research we explore the cost implications for the public purse of denying the right to work to asylum seekers, and refused asylum seekers who cannot be returned. Using Home Office data, we have calculated that the total cost in accommodation and support payments to asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers is £173.6m, rising to £233.5m if staffing and administration costs are included.

With no changes to the rules on working, if all asylum seekers in receipt of support were entitled to approximately 70% of the Jobseeker’s Allowance rate – assuming there is no change in their right to work – the asylum support bill for 2014-15 would have been £14.5m higher, as the second graph shows. If asylum seekers were entitled to the full level of income support on Job Seekers Allowance, the cost would increase by £36.2m.

When set within the context of a £146 billion welfare bill in 2014-15 (excluding pensions) these figures appear relatively low: £36.2m would add 0.02% to the total. Bringing asylum support up to the level of about 70% of Jobseeker’s Allowance would add just 0.01% on to the total welfare bill.

What if asylum seekers could work?

We might imagine that if asylum seekers were allowed to work the asylum support bill could be zero. But it is not realistic to assume that all asylum seekers would be 100% employed. However, even if we assumed that just 25% of all asylum seekers had a job, then we calculated that the asylum support bill would drop from £173.6m to £130m. This would save a quarter of what it spent last year.

If we calculate the net costs to the public purse of doubling asylum support so that it is almost in line with the level of Jobseeker’s Allowance, as well as factoring in that a quarter of asylum seekers would be employed as so wouldn’t need support, this could lead to a saving of around £70m a year.

Though recent governments have sought to minimise welfare provision for the unemployed and promote work as being positive for both individuals and wider society, asylum seekers are maintained in a position of welfare dependency, and those who have had their application refused are often destitute. Given the lack of evidence that levels of welfare support, or access to jobs act as a “pull” for asylum seekers to come to the UK, maintaining asylum seekers in situations of poverty can only be politically, not financially motivated.

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