Over the last six weeks, our series of blogs have been exploring what it means to offer a welcoming environment to refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. Today, Simeon Mitchell argues that giving people seeking asylum the right to work should be part of offering a proper welcome to those arriving in Britain.
“Being here, we are not working, it’s like we’ve been put to one side, as if we are not human beings.”Martha, an asylum seeker
We are all children of God. This understanding of our common humanity is the starting point for many Christian approaches to public policy issues. We emphasise the importance of treating all people with dignity, and believe that everyone should have the opportunity to experience life in all its fullness.
This is why the four Churches in the Joint Public Issues Team are calling for an end to the government’s hostile environment policy, and also for asylum seekers to have the right to work.
An asylum seeker is someone who has left their country of origin because of a fear of persecution, and formally applied for refugee status in another country, but whose application has not yet been concluded. In Britain, it can take months or even years for asylum claims to be finally settled.
While people are awaiting an asylum decision, they are currently effectively banned from working. They can only apply to the Home Office for permission to work if they have been waiting for a decision for over 12 months, and even then, only for a very narrow selection of specialist jobs – such as nuclear medicine practitioner or classical ballet dancer.
Not being able to work means that asylum seekers struggle to provide for themselves and their families. While they are housed and given a minimal level of financial support by the state, at just £5.39 a day, this leaves many in poverty.
Just as importantly, people seeking asylum are denied the opportunities for flourishing that work brings: to integrate into the community, build self-esteem, and contribute to society.
One asylum seeker, Ahmet, commented, “I want to work in this country because I want to find my identity. My identity is my work. If I can work, I can improve my life and I can help other people. I will be happy and confident.”
Our faith tradition provides us with good grounds to support the call for asylum seekers to be given the opportunity to work. Among the Old Testament’s repeated exhortations that the people of God should welcome the stranger, the sojourner, and the foreigner among them, there are practical directives about how this is to happen. One is that landowners are instructed to leave some crops in the fields so that others can harvest them, in the practice known as gleaning:
“When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”Deuteronomy 24:19
This was not to be done out of charity, but was an obligation on those with resources to provide poor and marginalised people with access to the means of production. And unlike charity, it was not a free gift. Through gleaning, people were to earn their living the same way as the landowners did, by working the fields with their own labours. In simple terms, it was an instruction that everyone had a right to work.
Giving asylum seekers the right to work would be a practical way of demonstrating that we are a welcoming country, and that we value the gifts and skills of those who are seeking protection and to make a new life here.
As Churches, we believe that people who have risked everything to find safety in Britain should have the best chance possible of living in dignity, contributing to society and integrating into their new communities. That’s why we are campaigning for asylum seekers to have the right to work after six months, as part of the ‘Lift the Ban’ coalition, launched in October 2018.
The coalition argues that the current ban is unfair, and wasteful of both public money and the talents of our population. It points out that no other European country has such strict rules, and nor do Canada or the USA. Giving asylum seekers the right to work would help provide people with a route out of poverty, save public funds, and aid integration. It would also add an estimated £42m to the British economy.
Nearly 150 organisations have now joined the Lift the Ban coalition, from faith communities to trade unions, migrant organisations to ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s. Research has found that two thirds of the general public agree that asylum seekers should have the right to work, and support is growing in Parliament.
In 2019, let’s make work part of offering a hospitable environment for all.
 Quoted in Lift the Ban campaign launch report, October 2018