An asylum seeker is person who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and is awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. It is a universal right to protection from persecution that we all enjoy.
A refugee is someone who, following their claim for asylum in the UK, has been recognised as needing protection under Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugees have permission to work and full rights to employment and training.
In 2007, the number of applications for asylum in the UK was 27,905. This is much lower than in 2000 but there are people who are still waiting for a decision on their asylum claim after several years. There are also many people who have had their claims refused but have been unable to return because it is still unsafe.
The Government changed its mind in 2002. Before this date, asylum seekers could apply for permission to work after six months. The Government argued that asylum needs to be kept separate from economic migration. They also believe that allowing asylum seekers to work will make the UK a more attractive place to claim asylum.
A majority of asylum seekers are prevented from working. A few may have permission to work from before 2002 as their cases are still undecided. Since February 2005, a European Directive has allowed asylum seekers to apply for work permission if they are still waiting for an initial decision from the Home Office after 12 months. However, this only applies to a small number of asylum seekers and is no guarantee of getting permission to work.
The main reason is for protection. Asylum seekers have faced torture, imprisonment, rape and other forms of violence. Some will have been targeted by the authorities because of their trade union work. Although asylum seekers do not come to the UK for work, a majority would much prefer to work and not live on benefits. A majority of asylum seekers were working or studying before being forced to leave their countries.
The Government provides limited support to asylum seekers who are destitute. Most people arrive in the UK with very little as a result of having to flee their country. Government asylum support is only 70% of income support; accommodation is often in the most economically disadvantaged areas of towns and cities. For those whose asylum claims are finally refused, there is nothing other than voucher support equivalent to £35 per week. Most are asked to agree to return voluntary in order to qualify for this amount, regardless of whether it is safe to do so.
Asylum seekers can study as home students in further education, including learning English, if they are still claiming asylum after six months. But there are limits if the course requires permission to work. Most asylum seekers wanting to study at university are unable to do so because they have to pay international student fees.