Social Justice

'It's a basic human dignity': Asylum seekers could soon be allowed to work in the UK

People claiming asylum are currently not allowed to get a job and forced to live on £39.65 a week. But that could change after a vote in the House of Lords.

nationality and borders bill

Protesters oppose the bill outside Downing Street last year. Image: Steve Eason/Flickr

MPs have been told to let asylum seekers get a job if their claim has still not been settled after six months in the UK.

Members of the House of Lords voted against the government on the policy during a session on Monday night that saw Priti Patel’s controversial Nationality and Borders Bill suffer major losses.

On the first of three days’ debate around the bill before it heads back to the Commons, peers blasted “nonsense” proposals in the legislation that would criminalise refugees based on how they travelled to the UK, such as by dinghy across the Channel.

They also voted to reject clause nine of the bill, which would give the government powers to strip individuals of their British citizenship without notice.

“It’s a complete nonsense, it’s not workable and it diminishes this country in the eyes of the world,” said Lord Dubs, refugee campaigner who escaped the Nazis in childhood.

The unelected chamber then went against ministers in a vote to allow asylum seekers to work if they are still waiting on a decision on their asylum claim after six months – passing 112 to 89.

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Campaigners hailed it as a significant victory in the fight against so-called hostile environment policies which leave asylum seekers with nearly no income. They are given £39.65 per week to pay for essentials such as clothes and food, but banned from working to earn a living and support themselves while waiting on a decision from the Home Office.

Most are also subject to the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) policy, meaning they are not allowed to claim most state benefits. The NRPF rules have also been linked to widespread destitution among people who arrive in the UK after escaping danger.

It marked a “momentous day in refugee rights”, said Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council.

“People seeking asylum need protection and a dignified income. Thanks to [the House of Lords] for voting to give people seeking sanctuary the right to work.”

Baroness Stroud tabled the amendment – previously described as a “no-brainer” by peers – to relax the rules around work. “There is a basic human dignity argument for this policy,” she told peers. 

“We believe that every individual should be able to support themselves and their families. In fact, we would go further and say that as Conservatives, we believe that every family has a personal responsibility to do so where they can.

“We have repeatedly, as a party, made the argument that work is the best route out of poverty.”

Lords also voted to ensure the Nationality and Borders Bill complies with international refugee protections, after swathes of human rights law experts warned the legislation could fall short of the UK’s legal commitments.

The setbacks dealt to the bill by the Lords signalled a “victory for compassion”, said Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council. 

“Peers aren’t prepared to see this government undermine a key principle of refugee protection – that we should not discriminate against refugees based on how they travel. People desperately fleeing war and persecution should always have a fair hearing on British soil.”

Clause 11, rejected by the chamber, would mean people fleeing persecution and arriving in the UK via routes the government deems “unauthorised” could be jailed for up to four years and refused refugee status regardless of their circumstances.

It would be “devastating for many refugees,” Solomon added. “We would see the creation of a highly precarious group of refugees, with restricted rights, unable to properly integrate or plan for their futures, constantly at risk of being reassessed for removal and enduring prolonged separation from their family.”

The proposal would create a two-class system for people seeking safety which would breach refugee law in place since the 1950s, the UN warned.

“At a time of international crisis, this incompetent government has once again found itself on the wrong side of history,” said Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture. The charity set up a petition – backed by nearly 150,000 people so far –  urging Boris Johnson to make it easier for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion to find protection in the UK.

“It is time for them to abandon these cruel proposals and cease their inhumane demonisation of people fleeing torture, war and persecution.”

Once the Nationality and Borders Bill completes this stage in the House of Lords, it will move back to the Commons where MPs can accept or oppose peers’ amendments.

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