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Seeking Safety, Facing Exploitation: Risks present in the UK’s Asylum system

June 20, 2024

Eleonora Paesani & Angeli Romero

People seeking asylum in the UK have been increasingly at the centre of public discourse in recent years. This has been reflected in parliament with the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Act 2023. 

Section 5 of the Illegal Migration Act (IMA) 2023 deems asylum claims inadmissible for individuals who arrive through irregular channels since 20 July 2023. Section 2 places a duty on the secretary of state to remove these individuals from the UK. At the time of writing, these two sections have not yet commenced. The IMA has been widely condemned, with concerns raised about its compliance with international law. UNHCR described how the legislation amounts to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances. 

This IMA builds on the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act and over a decade of the hostile environment, a set of policies created to deliberately make it difficult for people with irregular immigration status to live and work in the UK. These long-standing policies, including the criminalisation of illegal working (Section 34, Immigration Act 2016), have already created an increased vulnerability of asylum seekers to labour exploitation. 

Currently, when people submit an asylum claim in the UK, they will have a meeting with an immigration officer (known as a ‘screening’) and after the screening the Home Office will decide if the claim can be considered in the UK. If it is to be considered it will be given to a caseworker. If the case is not considered GOV.UK guidance states that the UK may send the individual to a “safe country that will consider your asylum claim”. Rwanda is currently the only country that the UK has an agreement with to accept asylum seekers. However, at the time of writing, no individuals have been removed from the UK and sent to Rwanda. In November 2023, the UK’s Supreme Court declared the agreement with Rwanda unlawful. Following this decision, the government introduced new legislation to declare Rwanda a safe country, known as the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. This is currently in force, however, the UK’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has said that any flights to Rwanda will not take place until after the July 4 election.

The UK has a large backlog of Asylum cases. By the end of 2023, 95,000 applicants awaited an initial decision. Approximately a third of those in the backlog (33,085) submitted an application post the enactment of the IMA. Home Office figures show that as of 31 May 2024, 67% of asylum applications have been pending initial decision for more than 6 months.

Asylum seekers have no right to work in the UK unless they have been granted permission to work by the Home Office. The exception to this, is where someone claiming asylum has an existing right to work based on a different visa which was valid when they applied for asylum. This existing leave is extended until their asylum application is determined. Those who have been waiting on their asylum application for more than 12 months, through no fault of their own, can apply for permission to work. However, even with this permission, they can only work in jobs on the Immigration Salary List (formerly the Shortage Occupation List). People who have not yet been in the UK for 12 months cannot apply for permission to work. The most recent available data on right-to-work claims, comes from a Home Office response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. In 2022: 19,231 applications for permission to work were submitted, 15,706 of which were granted. While  this policy has resulted in some people  being able to access jobs on the shortage occupation list, others have struggled to find employment due to various barriers such as language, qualifications, and discrimination. Having limited options means that unscrupulous employers can exploit this vulnerability by paying them less than the minimum wage, denying basic rights and benefits, or forcing people to work in dangerous or unsanitary conditions. 

While awaiting a decision on an Asylum application, people can access asylum support. This  includes somewhere to live and £7.03 per day to cover food, travel and all other living costs. Those living in hotels that provide meals, receive just £8.86 per week to cover essentials. While the Home office state that this support is adequate, there have been many calls from civil society to increase available support for people seeking asylum, evidencing how what is being provided is often not enough for people to survive on.                     

Difficulties in receiving the right to work and accessing employment in practice, combined with limited asylum support means that individuals are left in a state of limbo while awaiting their asylum application, leaving them dependent and unable to provide for themselves and their families.      

The limited legal status and lack of access to employment rights and social protections means that asylum seekers in the UK are particularly vulnerable to labour exploitation, making them reliant on exploitative employers or landlords for survival. For example, having limited access to work and support for such a prolonged period of time can push people into seeking employment irregularly, in order to support themselves, despite not having the legal right to work, putting them at significant risk of exploitation. In addition, people seeking asylum may also face additional barriers in reporting abuse and accessing justice, including fear of deportation, language barriers, and lack of knowledge about their rights, which can be exacerbated by the confusing asylum system. When people are working irregularly it creates an additional layer of vulnerability, as individuals are often deterred from reporting abuse at work for fear of being reported to immigration enforcement. 

All of these risks are set to be exacerbated by the IMA. Whilst sections 2 and 5 of the IMA have not commenced, their implementation would mean that almost anyone who arrives in the UK by means the Home Office deems irregular cannot make admissible asylum claims, creating a large and permanent population of people who will live in limbo indefinitely, without any hope of securing lawful status in the UK and who won’t be able to access the limited access to rights and support available to those who entered before the IMA.

To address the risks of labour exploitation for people seeking asylum, the UK government must ensure that everyone can access UK employment law in practice. This means repealing its hostile environment policies, including the Illegal Migration Act 2023 and the Illegal Working Offence, and ensuring that asylum seekers have access to basic support and services. This includes providing them with adequate accommodation, healthcare, and financial support. There needs to be a clear separation between the roles of Labour Market Enforcement and Immigration Enforcement with secure reporting pathways and increased resourcing for proactive monitoring and inspection of compliance with employment law. 

As per the asks of the Lift the Ban campaign, the government should ensure that asylum seekers have the automatic right to work after six months of waiting on their asylum application and with no limits to the jobs they can access. They should also be protected from exploitation in the workplace by having access to secure reporting despite their immigration status. The Government should also ensure that there are safe and legal routes to seek safety in the UK so that individuals in need of protection are able to do so, without having to undergo long, perilous and costly journeys to access safety, and that their claims are promptly dealt with, without unnecessary delays.