Lift them out of poverty

Asylum seekers are currently banned from working until their application has been processed, often leaving them isolated and running the risk of developing serious mental health issues. Refugee campaigner Azadeh Hosseini speaks about the importance of work to those seeking asylum and their integration into society.

Azadeh Hosseini

When I became an asylum seeker, I was struggling with my life on a daily basis: I was no longer able to work though I had a masters degree with years of experience. My main problem wasn’t money at that time because I had savings and family to rely on, although this is not the case for many asylum seekers. Rather, it was the sense of not being able to participate in the community I lived, to have a social life or financially support myself that I found deeply debilitating.

Although the main reason for having a job and career is financial well-being and earning a living,  this is not the only important element. Being able to work burnishes us with social skills and daily interaction; workplaces provide a platform to be involved in our society, giving us purpose and making us feel valued.

I used to apply for jobs, despite knowing I couldn’t take them, in order to maintain a sense of self and reminding myself how capable I am. I was invited for interviews a couple of times but each time I made an excuse for not attending because the real reason was too painful to say.

According to Home Office policy, asylum seekers can volunteer in charities and their community but “there should be no contractual obligations on the volunteer and they should not enjoy any contractual entitlement to any work or benefits”. This means it is illegal for an asylum seeker to carry out voluntary work during contracted hours (e.g. 9 to 5); for that very reason I had to give up a voluntary opportunity at Amnesty International.

Up to 2002, people who claimed asylum in the UK could apply for the right to work six months after their initial asylum claim, but the law was scrapped in July 2002. The Home Office argument was that the decision-making process on asylum cases had gotten faster, making the rule irrelevant.

Despite the Home Office claims of a faster process, many applicants still have to live in limbo for years. Asylum seekers can apply for NASS – The National Asylum Support, which is £37.75 per week ( £5.39 daily) for adults and £35.39 per week for refused asylum. The allowance is loaded onto a debit card (ASPEN card) each week for their food, clothing and toiletries. Once, an asylum seeker told me how humiliated he was when sometimes the card didn’t work at the till and other customers gave him nasty looks. Another time he had to return certain items in his basket because they weren’t ‘essentials’ as categorised by the Home Office.

The application process for NASS support usually takes more than a month and since asylum seekers are barred from work they are left destitute and homeless. Those living in big cities like London struggle the most, especially when they have children. They have to rely on food banks, charities, NGOs and religious centres like churches, mosques and synagogues, otherwise they won’t survive.

Banning people from having a normal life is dehumanising, especially for those who had to leave their home and everything behind in order to seek safety. While I was a volunteer mentor at a refugees and migrants’ charity, I met many asylum seekers with high levels of education, skills and experience; an entrepreneur, a dentist, a journalist, a university tutor, a maths teacher and many more who if they had permission to work would not only be able to support themselves financially but could benefit their community and our society.

It is a fact that working in their host country has a great positive impact on the integration of asylum seekers into that society. In contrast, banning them from working isolates asylum seekers and can lead to severe depression and various mental health problems.

On 16 October 2018, a coalition of more than 90 organisations from across the UK launched the Lift the Ban campaign. They call on the government to give people seeking asylum the right to work. The Green Party UK and Wales proudly support the campaign and actively works to end the ban. You can find out more about the campaign on the campaign website.