“I became an asylum seeker by accident. The original plan was to study, and then go back to my country. But then the coup happened.”
When Aung “Bushee” Kyaw Phyo moved to the U.K. from Myanmar almost four years ago, the 29-year-old former biomedical student didn’t know he would soon be one of thousands of asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their claim.
But the Myanmar military overthrew the government in a coup d’etat in February 2021, preventing Bushee from returning to his country. He eventually applied for asylum in the U.K.
His family back home had been comfortable, working as chauffeurs and assistants to ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi. After the coup, they could no longer support Bushee, and he was forced to terminate his studies. Now, without a work permit, he survives on £45 a week, the standard allowance issued to asylum seekers by the British government — a rate that was increased in December from £40.85 after the High Court ruled the previous level unlawful.
“I go back and die,” he says of his current choices. “Or wait and do nothing.”
Bushee’s is one of an ever-growing backlog of pending asylum cases in the U.K. At the end of 2022, there were 132,000 claims — representing nearly 161,000 people — awaiting an initial decision in the pipeline, according to the Home Office, the U.K. department responsible for immigration. That number has increased by 495% since the end of 2017.
Asylees sit in wait largely without being able to legally work, often struggling to make ends meet as their cases are delayed and a cost-of-living crisis continues to ravage the country. With the U.K. facing both a workforce shortage and an economic downturn, labor experts and human rights advocates say that tapping asylum seekers’ labor is a no-brainer.
“Providing asylum seekers with the right to work is both good news for them and the country,” says Daniel Sohege, director of Stand for All, a British human rights advocacy and support organization. “Having the ability to earn money means they are able to rebuild their lives faster, make connections within communities and be independent once again. It enables people to increase their self confidence, while also helping deal with the U.K.’s growing skills shortage.”
That ability to earn, he says, also takes the burden off taxpayers, enabling asylees to pay for their own housing and other needs.
It’s a model that has worked elsewhere. Several countries allow claimants to work as their applications are processed: Portugal and Sweden permit asylum seekers to work almost immediately, and Canada introduced temporary measures in November to speed up the granting of work permits to claimants after their medical exam. Germany and Belgium allow claimants to potentially work after three and four months, respectively.
Asylees struggle to survive
Without the ability to work legally, asylum seekers face social and financial hardships which are exacerbated by delays in their case decisions.
According to the Home Office, asylum cases “will usually be decided within six months” — but can take longer for “complicated” cases. However, data released in February shows that about 110,000 cases out of 166,000 (or 66%) were pending for more than six months.
A 2021 analysis by the Refugee Council, a charity that works with refugees and people seeking asylum in the U.K., found that it takes one to three years on average to get an initial decision, with some cases taking longer than five years. Freedom of Information requests of Home Office data reveal that as of June 2022, 40,913 people had been waiting between one and three years.
That delay can be devastating for asylees — and the appeals process can further extend wait times. The Home Office tells Analyst News they are taking “immediate action” to clear the case backlog, but they don’t expect it to be completed until the end of 2024.
“Providing asylum seekers with the right to work is both good news for them and the country.”
Prolonged periods without a case decision leave asylum seekers vulnerable to financial exploitation, a 2022 joint report from the U.N. Refugee Agency and the British Red Cross reveals. The report includes examples of desperate asylum seekers in the U.K. being forced into modern slavery, sexual labor and domestic servitude, unable to seek help.
Matt Dykes, a policy officer at the Trades Union Congress, agrees. “Unscrupulous employers use immigration status to say: ‘Well, you’re not going to make a complaint about us because if you do, we’ll take you to the authorities, so you’ll do as you’re told. We’re not going to pay you the correct national minimum wage rate. We’re not going to let you take any holidays. You won’t have any rest breaks.’”
Asylum seekers who don’t work illegally may escape outright exploitation, but they still face the impossible task of surviving on a meager stipend of £45 a week — made even harder in an economy where the cost of living has skyrocketed in the last two years. The prices of consumer goods in the U.K. were 10.1% higher in January than the year before.
The allowance, which amounts to £2,340 a year, is a fraction of the £25,500 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a poverty charity, says is the minimum a single person needs to earn to achieve a basic standard of living in the U.K. That figure does include housing, which is provided to destitute asylees, though they have no choice in where they live.
“You have to choose between catching a bus to go see your solicitor or to buy food,” Last Mufaba, a refugee from Zimbabwe, told research and advocacy organization Positive Money last year.
Ahmad Dabool is one asylum seeker desperate to work and support his wife and two young children. The 37-year-old fled war and ISIS extremists in Syria for Turkey, later coming to the U.K. when his wife earned a scholarship to work on her master’s degree. The family eventually applied for asylum.
As they wait for their case to be heard, Dabool tries to stretch their weekly stipend to cover all the necessities his children require.
“It’s very hard. We have two children, and they take formula and need nappies and wipes and a lot of stuff for the baby,” he says of his 1-year-old baby and 4-month-old infant. Until recently, the family was only receiving an allowance to cover three people.
“You have to choose between catching a bus to go see your solicitor or to buy food.”
Dabool was a practicing pharmacist in Syria, running his own private pharmacy. In the U.K., he applied to work at a number of pharmacies, hoping to put his skills to use. Most didn’t respond to his application, while others explained they could not hire an asylum seeker.
Encountering roadblock after roadblock, he even tried to volunteer at the British Red Cross, unfortunately in vain. “All companies have a different issue. Some request a driver’s license, some request travel documents, some request a biometric card,” he says.
Dabool tried twice to get a driver’s license but was turned away; asylum claimants are not able to apply. He also can’t apply for a biometric card until he hears an outcome on his asylum case from the Home Office.
Like Dabool, there are many almost-citizens trapped in limbo, unable to work legally until an outcome on their application grants them a new identity as a refugee.
A potential policy solution
Allowing asylum seekers to break into the labor market would bring many benefits to the U.K., experts say.
Despite a dip in 2022, the number of countrywide job vacancies sits at 1.12 million, a figure 328,000 above pre-pandemic levels. Three-quarters of all businesses in the U.K. report having trouble filling open roles due to the labor shortage.
Brexit resulted in a reduction of the number of low-skilled workers coming from Europe to the U.K., says Robert McNeil, a researcher at Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine made matters worse, limiting the number of seasonal agricultural workers coming from Ukraine because men of fighting age can’t leave the country, he adds.
Currently, asylum seekers can apply for permission to work if they have been waiting at least 12 months for a decision — but only if the delayed decision wasn’t due to a fault of their own. Even then, there is no guarantee it will be granted.
It’s a policy that dates back to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s tenure. In mid-2002, he removed the concession allowing asylum seekers who had waited six months to apply for permission to work. Three years later, the Labour Government revised the rules to comply with EU law, and the U.K. imposed a 12-month restriction. Then in 2010, the Coalition Government introduced the Shortage Occupation List, restricting the jobs asylum seekers could apply for to certain understaffed sectors such as health, engineering and social care, among others. The construction sector was added to the list in 2023.
Resistance to allowing asylees easy access to work has historical roots, says McNeil. A jump in asylum claims in the late 1990s and early 2000s prompted concern that people were claiming asylum primarily to access the U.K. labor market.
But Sohege, a specialist in international refugee law, says that the current policies are more a “political choice” than grounded in reality: “Neither party wants to be seen as being too lax on immigration,” he says.
He adds that the anti-immigration rhetoric used during Brexit fuelled hardline members of Parliament to push tougher policies — even though attitudes toward immigration have been softening in recent years. A December 2022 poll found that immigration and asylum was a top issue for a third of all Britons, but the proportion who thought the number of people coming to the U.K. is too high fell by 13 points since 2016.
Employers are desperate to fill the jobs that are up for grabs — and they’re willing to hire asylum seekers. In a January poll commissioned by the International Rescue Committee, 68% of business decision makers in the U.K. said they favor allowing asylum seekers to work after they have waited six months for their asylum claims to be processed, while 64% believed doing so would have a positive impact on the British economy as a whole.
Though the U.K. government is trying to solve its labor crisis by enticing those who already have the right to work back into the workforce, changing policy to allow asylum seekers to work sooner remains a strenuous political task.
“Giving [asylum seekers] the right to work might appear to some people on the right of the political spectrum that you’re being weak on immigration and letting people settle in the U.K.,” says Dykes.
To change policy requires changing public opinion around immigration and asylum, adds Sohege.
But the benefits of doing so are clear, McNeil says: “People who come into [the U.K.] at a working age and then work are extremely beneficial — they pay taxes.”
Dabool, who escaped the grip of ISIS, wants to be part of the solution.
“This is the first time in my life I have stayed at home without work,” he says. “All my life I was working.”