Author: John Sentamu
Between Christmas and the new year, the church calendar recalls an event that is starkly at odds with the celebrations of hope that surround it. On 28 December, Holy Innocents’ Day, we recall Herod’s massacre of young children, which, in Matthew’s Gospel, the infant Jesus only escaped by his parents fleeing for protection in Egypt. How long they stayed there nobody knows, but it is likely that Joseph, with his skills as a carpenter, would have found ways to earn a living while they were there.
After fleeing their homes in search of safety, today’s asylum seekers also find themselves in a new and unfamiliar country and many will have spent this holiday thousands of miles from their families, friends and support networks. Any hope for what the new year may bring is often tainted by the anxiety that comes with waiting for a decision on an asylum claim. The support they are given by the Home Office of just over £5 a day to meet all their essential living needs will need to stretch even further in this period. With children out of school, local drop-ins and support services mostly closed, the long empty days are difficult to fill. The experience of poverty is most stark during this time of celebration and giving.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have been heartened to see a growing chorus of voices making the case for granting asylum seekers the right to work over the past few months. That includes voices from across the political spectrum – because regardless of one’s views on asylum policy, common sense tells us that working can be a solution to poverty. This government accepts that premise, but currently denies the right to work to those who are seeking asylum.
I believe it’s time for this to change, and I am not alone. Recent polls have shown that there is widespread public support for allowing asylum seekers to work and support themselves. This comes as no surprise, as a reform to the policy would benefit the UK economy by creating savings and bringing in tax revenues. It would help new refugees to integrate more effectively, as long periods outside of the labour market inevitably take a toll on self-confidence, skills and employability. Perhaps most importantly, it would give back dignity to people seeking asylum in what is otherwise a draining and degrading system.
Working with people in the asylum system over the last few decades, I never fail to be impressed by the breadth of skills and experiences that they have brought to this country. I have come across people who have worked as doctors, shepherds, interpreters, engineers, seamstresses and mechanics – all united by their experiences of seeking sanctuary in the UK.
I heard recently of Faith, (not her real name) from Zimbabwe, living in north-east England, who waited for a decision on her asylum claim for 11 years. She had been a nurse in her own country, and was desperate to get back to doing the job she loved. Not being allowed to work had a profoundly damaging effect on Faith. She would sit at home getting very depressed, unable to make friends, because going anywhere cost money she didn’t have. She felt her training and skills were being wasted. This had an impact on her self-confidence, and eventually upon her mental health. How different it would have been had she been permitted to find employment and thereby contribute to the society where she had sought refuge.
Listening to asylum seekers’ stories of persecution, displacement and loss, I hear the noble traits of bravery, determination and endurance. It is in no one’s interest to have these individuals forced into inactivity. I have no doubt that their contributions to our society would be significant – if we let them. Despite the inevitable preoccupations of parliament at this time, I hope and pray that among the new year resolutions made by politicians of all sides this winter, they will find time to follow through on this commitment, and enable asylum seekers to work, giving them the dignity of being able to contribute to society by paying tax, reducing the burden on the state, and benefiting local communities up and down this country with their skills.
• John Sentamu is the archbishop of York
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