My name is Melinda, and I am the System Change and Advocacy Coordinator at City of Sanctuary Sheffield. Alongside our volunteer team, I am excited to share with you an update about our recent campaigning efforts in Sheffield to give people seeking asylum the right to work.
The System Change and Advocacy volunteer team is striving to improve the asylum and refuge system in the UK. We conduct all of this work in solidarity with people seeking sanctuary, ensuring that their leadership capacity is developed, and their voices are heard.
We work across various levels, building local communities of support, regional coalitions and supporting national campaigns. We use our grassroots power to impactfully support advocacy, campaigning, and lobbying work.
Recently we have been campaigning to give people seeking asylum the right to work, through the Lift the Ban campaign.
Currently, people seeking asylum in the UK are only able to apply for the right to work after they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year and only for jobs that are on the Government’s restricted Shortage Occupation List (this is an incredibly restrictive list that includes jobs such as ballet dancer and nuclear medicine practitioner).
This means that people are essentially banned from working whilst they wait months, and often several years, for a decision on their asylum claim. People are left to live on just £6.77 per day, for food, medicine, travel, communication, clothes, and hygiene products, struggling to support themselves and their families, while their talents are wasted and their integration set back.
What is the Lift the Ban campaign?
The Lift the Ban campaign is a coalition, made of almost 300 organisations, businesses, trade unions, local authorities and faith groups across the UK who are calling on the UK government to give people seeking asylum the right to work, unconstrained by the Shortage Occupation List, after they have waited six months for a decision on their initial asylum claim or further submission.
What impact would the right to work have?
Employment is widely seen as one of the most important factors in supporting integration and has many indirect benefits, such as supporting people to learn English.
“At the moment, you have no plans for the future. Or even for the present. You have no plans for anything.” Pauline
There are various factors that define our identities, and work is clearly a very significant one. An intentional policy of restricting people’s access to the labour market for months and sometimes years is certain to have a significant and harmful impact on those people’s sense of pride and dignity.
“Not being able to work, it cripples you… As a parent, you feel that you are not good enough… When you have kids, their daily needs – there are things that you need to give them. You can’t give them the whole world, but you have to provide them with at least the basics. If I were working, I would not have to go to charity shops all the time to get hand-me-downs for my kids.” Rose
There is considerable evidence to suggest a strong and positive link between employment and mental health. Data from the NHS, for instance, shows that employed adults are less likely to have a common mental health problem than those who are economically inactive or unemployed.
“If I was allowed to work, I would feel like a human. Everyone knows what being a human is… It is very good for everybody.” Hina
As a result of current policy, the Government is creating a situation whereby people are forced to live in limbo for long periods of time and are unable to put their talents to use. Their many and varied skills are being wasted, at best; at worst, they are being lost.
“I’m a midwife, and here I am wasting away. When my services are well needed out there, and I heard they are now going out of the UK to recruit midwives. And here I am, wasting away.”
Giving people seeking asylum the rights to work is a win-win. A report from Refugee Action indicates that a change in policy would result in an economic gain of £97.8 million per year for the UK Government, because of additional tax revenues and savings. This is based on the amount that the Government would save by not having to provide subsistence (cash) support to people, plus the extra money received by the exchequer through payroll contributions from income tax and National Insurance.
There is good reason to believe that a change in policy which allows people seeking asylum to work could help in the fight against forced labour. Long periods spent in poverty, without the right to work, make people more vulnerable to exploitation, including exploitative labour. One recent study that explored experiences of forced labour among people seeking asylum in England found that “the experience of severely exploitative labour, including forced labour, is often unavoidable for refugees and asylum seekers in order to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families.”
What happens elsewhere?
The UK’s approach to employment rights for people seeking asylum is significantly more restrictive than that of any other comparable country. Many other countries do not place restrictions on the type of employment somebody can take up – unlike in the UK, where the Shortage Occupation List makes it practically impossible for people to work, even after a 12-month wait. As this graph shows, many countries have chosen to set a considerably shorter exclusionary interval, and some allow work from the first day.
Lift the Ban: It’s Common Sense!
The hostile environment (all of the policies which make life difficult for migrants living in the UK) manifests in so many ways. This is a campaign that will have a tangible impact. Lifting the Ban will give people in the asylum system agency over their lives, a choice in where they live, the ability to access better legal support, enough food to feed their families and clothe them and a sense of purpose whilst they wait for their asylum.
What are we doing in Sheffield: The Sheffield Lift the Ban Coalition
Nine months ago, we held an event at the sanctuary to talk about the Lift the Ban Campaign. We invited organisations, faith and grassroots communities, trade unions, local authorities, people from both universities and people with lived experience to join us in creating a Sheffield Lift the Ban coalition to join efforts with the national campaign.
Since then, we have had many new groups join us in this campaign. City of Sanctuary Sheffield strongly believes in the power of bringing people together and building powerful communities that can win migrant justice in Britain and beyond. We are proud to work together with a wide variety of people and organisations to create change.
What we have achieved so far
After the first event, we had several meetings to create a common strategy on how to promote the Campaign in Sheffield and get the support of Sheffield City Council.
We worked hard to support a motion that was brought to the Council in July, which worked to reaffirm Sheffield as a City of Sanctuary, which included the Council joining the National Lift the Ban Coalition. We held meetings with councillors from different political parties, and trade unions, and distributed flyers at universities, churches, faith groups, and grassroots communities. We also organised a rally before the council meeting to vote on the motion, where over 100 people gathered outside the Town Hall to hear speeches and show support for the motion.
We were incredibly proud that Sheffield City Council voted unanimously to reaffirm itself as a City of Sanctuary and pledged to join the Lift the Ban Coalition and actively support this campaign.
What our plans are for the future
We need to make Lifting the Ban a common sense policy for all parties in the next general election! To do this we will keep raising awareness about this ban and working to get support from politicians and organisations from across Sheffield. Our current focus is to ensure that Sheffield City Council stands by their commitment and formally joins the Lift the Ban National Campaign.
We are specifically calling on local businesses of all shapes and sizes across the UK to become a Lift the Ban Business Ally. If you are a business owner and would like to get more information about the Lift the Ban and how to join the National Campaign, please contact [email protected]
We will also be holding an official meeting to launch the Sheffield Lift the Ban Coalition very soon.
If you are interested in supporting this campaign, get in touch, there are many ways to be involved.
If you are a member of a business, faith group, community group, trade union or any group that feels they could support Lift the Ban, please get in touch. We are building a coalition that is strong enough to create the change we need to see!
You can volunteer with the City of Sanctuary Sheffield Advocacy and System Change team. If you have a passion for justice and want to make a difference in people’s lives, then apply now. We are especially keen for any students to join us for our upcoming actions. If you have any questions please contact me, Melinda Mo-Martinez [email protected]
You can find out more about Lift the Ban within the National Coalition report. This was the source of all figures and quotes used in this newsletter.