The Project


Asylum seekers in Britain can apply for permission to work only if they have waited for over 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim, and are not considered responsible for the delay in decision-making. However, if granted permission to work they are restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list, which presents a barrier to employment for the majority of asylum seekers. This list currently includes jobs such as “skilled classical ballet dancers who meet the standard required by internationally recognised United Kingdom ballet companies”, “nuclear medicine technologists” and “manufacturing engineers (purchasing) in the aerospace sector”. Studies have found that most asylum seekers who wish to work either have qualifications from their home country which require additional (and costly) conversion courses, recognition processes which are beyond their means (such as teaching), or would like to find low skilled or unskilled work. In effect, this means that the vast majority of asylum seekers do not have any form of access to paid employment in the UK today.

This policy approach appears to create a number of problems for the government, and for wider society. Despite the imperative of austerity the state makes itself liable for the accommodation and living costs of asylum seekers if it is not to breach their human rights by making them destitute. In 2011/12 the UK Border Agency (UKBA) spent over £284 million on asylum support. The figure rises to £1.85 billion when staffing, administrative and detention costs are included. ‘Asylum support’ includes housing and financial support (for food and other basic subsistence goods) which is set as low as 50% of the welfare payments made to citizens for some. This is below the official poverty line and unsurprisingly, many asylum seekers respond to this situation by undertaking informal work in the shadow economy.

Though recent governments have sought to minimise welfare provision for the unemployed and promote working as positive for both individuals and wider society, asylum seekers are maintained in a position of welfare dependency. At the same time, politicians warn that welfare benefits act as an incentive to economic migrants to use the asylum route to enter Britain, thus providing a justification for limiting financial support as much as possible.

This project seeks to investigate the reasons behind these policy choices. Why are certain approaches favored over others, and what evidence is drawn on in reaching these conclusions? It will also look at the impacts of the policy approach taken and the ways in which non-state actors (such as charities) become involved in providing supplementary support to aid asylum seekers. Over three years the project will pursue the following objectives:

  1. Systematically map the political discourses, both for and against, limiting asylum seekers access to paid employment within the context of the wider political economy in order to disentangle how and why policy is made in this area.
  2. Determine whether limiting asylum seekers’ access to paid employment is (a) cost-effective and (b) deters potential asylum seekers from coming to the UK.
  3. Having identified the major rationales, to identify possible policy solutions and to share these findings with policymakers and third sector actors who might use them to influence policy decision making.

Research Methods

The Project will involve three work packages.

Work Package 1: Policy and political discourses of exclusion and inclusion

  1. Policy discourse analysis of statements, speeches, press releases, and policy documents using Critical Discourse Analysis –what are the justifications for limiting the right to work and what is the evidence base? (See ‘framework for analysis’ below for more information).
  2. Interviews with policy makers both for and against the right to work –what are the justifications for limiting or opening up the right work and what is their evidence base?
  3. Interviews with campaigners around the right to work –what are the justifications for limiting or extending the right to work and what is their evidence base?

Work Package 2: Statistical analysis of secondary sources

  1. Determine the cost of asylum support over the past 5 years.
  2. Estimate the wider economic cost of maintaining asylum seekers in a position of poverty (charitable costs of supplementary support). The key question here will be ‘how much is the charitable sector spending on supporting asylum seekers who cannot work?’
  3. Estimate potential tax contribution of asylum seekers, should they be permitted to work.

Work Package 3: Interviews with asylum seekers

Interview asylum seekers about perceptions of employment rights before coming to the UK, impact this had on thier decision to come here, and their skills and qualifications, and employment ambitions should they be given permission to work.

Framework for Analysis

Cultural Political Economy (CPE) provides the overarching conceptual framework for the project. Following the work of Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum, CPE sees the discursive and extra-discursive aspects of policy making as co-constitutive of the variation, selection and retention of policy. What are termed ‘meaning-making practices’ and material conditions together enable and constrain policy options, the choices that are made and the consequences of these choices. The discourses of asylum drawn upon by politicians and advocates for asylum seekers are seen, from this point of view, as a variety of potential policy options.

I will identify the different discourses that are in current circulation and identify the continuities and discontinuities between them. The findings will be critically assessed in terms of how far the various discourses account for, or exclude, important extra-discursive conditions (discourses might include or exclude reference to material poverty or war in countries of origin, as pertinent factors in asylum policy and the right to work, for example). Preventing asylum seekers from undertaking paid employment on the basis of either economics or limiting immigration would, from a CPE perspective, constitute extra-discursive aspects of asylum policy and the right to work. In line with the CPE approach analytical techniques from critical discourse analysis will be used to identify and analyse the discourses of asylum which are drawn upon by politicians and advocates for asylum seekers.

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