A few months ago I met Stephen, who had just been granted refugee status having waited five years for a decision on his case.
He fled persecution in Uganda for being gay, and since his arrival in the UK, he had not been able to seek work despite holding a master’s degree in psychology. For five years, he was dependent on a meagre handout (which is currently £36.62 a week). His distress and frustration were palpable; but sadly, he is but one of many.
Stephen’s case exemplifies the nonsensical nature of Government policy on asylum seekers. At present, taxpayers’ money is used needlessly to ‘support’ those who are both willing and able to contribute to society as asylum seekers are denied the dignity of supporting themselves.
Currently, asylum seekers are only permitted to request permission to work after waiting a year for a decision on their application or fresh asylum claim. Even if this is eventually granted, they are only allowed to apply for jobs on the shortage occupation list – which in practice means that the vast majority are ineligible to work in the UK. Indeed, many asylum seekers try to work as volunteers, but companies, being unsure of the ‘rules’ in this area, often refuse to take them on.
It shouldn’t need pointing out that asylum seekers are one of society’s most vulnerable groups, the majority having already suffered traumatic experiences in their home countries. Upon arrival in the UK they are faced with a further ordeal – months (or indeed years) of enforced inactivity; which as we know can have profound effects on their mental health and general well-being. In some tragic cases, it can even lead to suicide.
Both the financial and human costs are too great for this to persist any longer. To me, it is clear that our asylum system is crying out for reform. For this reason, on 10 June I introduced a Private Members’ Bill (to amend the Immigration Act 1971) that will allow asylum seekers to work after waiting six months for a decision. This Bill would be a first step towards creating a more compassionate system for people that have already endured so much, whilst also crucially preventing public funds from being allocated to those who are both able and willing to support themselves and their families.
In 2010, the Liberal Democrats pledged to ‘allow asylum seekers [the right to] work, saving taxpayers’ money and allowing them the dignity of earning their living instead of having to depend on handouts’. We can’t have it both ways. We must either allow asylum seekers the right to work, or we must reform the pitiful support system. We have a heightened responsibility in Government to both welcome and care for those fleeing war and persecution. We must reform our immigration system to permit those that can the dignity of being self-sufficient while resident in the UK.
I urge you to join me, and LD4SOS, and give the campaign your support.
* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords