On 19 January the Telegraph newspaper published a piece about asylum seekers saying that, “Channel migrants have been quietly given the right to work in sectors including care, construction and agriculture and can still retain access to state-subsidised bed and board under a Home Office scheme”. The statement is untrue. The article sparked (as intended?) a flurry of anti-immigrant and anti-government vitriol.
Asylum seekers have been allowed to work since 2022
The opening statement and subsequent article set out to mislead. There is nothing ‘quiet’, or underhand, about the proposals. The Telegraph and its readers have known that asylum seekers who have been waiting for a decision on their refugee claim for more than a year have been able to apply for jobs on the post-Brexit ‘shortage occupation list’ since 2022, a change made while Priti Patel was home secretary.
It was the Telegraph that ‘loudly’ published this change in January 2022, noting at the time:
“Industry chiefs and government advisers said the asylum seekers could play a vital part in plugging gaps in the hard-pressed care sector where there are an estimated 140,000 vacancies, accounting for 10 per cent of the workforce.”
To reinforce this point, the Telegraph provided the link to another article saying many providers in the care home sector were on the “brink of collapse”. The 2022 piece focused on how well received the plan was by ministers, the care sector, migration experts, and the (government-sponsored) Migration Advisory Committee, adding just a footnote of opposition from the (anti-immigration pressure group) Migration Watch at the end, arguing for much higher pay to beat the care crisis.
Permission does not necessarily mean employment
Asylum seekers can apply to work only after they have been waiting over a year for a decision. Many do. Not only do they hope to work and begin the process of integration but are keen that the Home Office knows that they wish to. The high number of applicants for permission work is indicative of the longer waiting times for asylum decisions (the government standard is six months). In other words, more asylum seekers are now eligible to seek work, as the Home Office is taking longer to process their claims.
Most of those who apply, are granted permission to work, as the Home Office has no good reason to deny them. But they are restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list and can only apply for jobs that meet the minimum threshold for the relevant sector (£24,000 in the case of health and social care). They must also meet any specific ‘non-British worker’ tests such as language proficiency or transferrable qualifications. It remains the case that few asylum seekers meet the eligibility criteria for the skilled worker list, so most remain unemployed.
According to the Telegraph, 19,231 asylum seekers sought permission to work in 2022 and 15,706 were granted permission. It implies that those given permission are likely to be working and does not tell us how many are. It is likely to be very few, possibly no more than a handful. Only the senior care vacancies will offer work at more than £24,000 per annum, and the other requirements are prohibitive. Being constantly moved by the Home Office makes it very difficult to gain and keep employment. The requirements on employers and all the ‘right to work’ checks are also onerous and dissuade many from taking on single foreign applicants (most foreign recruitment is undertaken by specialist agencies).
Asylum seekers at risk of exploitation
However, the care sector is one of the most exploitative work sectors in the UK (along with agriculture and construction) and there is a risk that, in seeking work, asylum seekers may become vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery. Unscrupulous employers may promise them the correct wage but then claw back the higher costs through ‘expenses’ or simply not pay them for hours worked. Asylum seekers cannot complain for fear of being reported to the immigration authorities.
If an asylum seeker obtains work, then they will be required to pay for their accommodation, and board if in hotel accommodation. They will also pay tax and national insurance. The Telegraph article accuses them of “still retain[ing] access to state-subsidised bed and board”. It is not subsidised and is frequently of such a poor standard that it would deemed unfit for habitation on the open market.
The Telegraph quotes anti-immigration campaigners – Nigel Farage, Miriam Cates and Migration Watch – in its efforts to discredit the policy. They all say being allowed to work and be self-supporting will encourage more boat crossings; yet previously they argued that it is the welfare benefits that are the draw. The piece does also ask the (reputable) Migration Observatory for a quote. But it presents the figures in a way that implies these are the number of people gaining work, rather than the number receiving permission to work. Migration Observatory is broadly in favour of the policy, though understandably express surprise at the high numbers presented.
It is not clear why the Telegraph has chosen to publish this misleading piece now, as we head towards a general election. If the intention was to stoke more anti-immigrant sentiment, it has succeeded. The comments on social media and under the piece are testament to that. Most commentators believe that the policy is new, sneaked in, and that there are thousands of unvetted and undocumented young men working in care homes, sent there directly from small boats. This Telegraph piece is irresponsible journalism.