'We want to work, we want to contribute': Asylum seekers urge work restrictions to be lifted

Words and video report by Will Tullis

Rachael wants to work.

She’s an asylum seeker from Kenya. In her homeland, she was a secondary school Biology teacher. She also ran her own business.

Rachael fled death threats and extortion in Kenya and has been in the UK for almost five years.

But she isn’t allowed to work while waiting for her asylum claim to be processed.

Rachael has an undergraduate degree and - as well as a successful teaching career - she ran a business importing and exporting clothes.

She says five years barred from the workforce has been beyond frustrating.

"I could contribute by working, by paying taxes, by not taking from the government the money it is spending on [asylum seekers]", she told ITV News.

"It should go to another sector of the economy that really needs it - we don’t need it.

"We are willing and able to work, we are willing and able to contribute to do our bit. And I do believe that British society is all about doing your bit."

With 1.2 million job vacancies in the UK and staff shortages across sectors, some teachers and businesses have urged government to lift work restrictions on refugees.

Glyn Potts is a headteacher at Newman College in Oldham. Education has borne much of the brunt of the last few years with Covid and the cost of living crisis hitting schools hard.

Two teachers who joined in September have already left. Glyn told ITV News the pressures on teachers make it hard to attract and retain staff.

"It’s a real concern for us. We struggle to retain staff who were already in the system but equally, to retain new talent to make sure we can fulfil those roles", he said. "Put frankly, there aren’t enough people internally within our country who are wanting to become teachers.

"This is now the tenth time where we’ve failed to meet recruitment targets. This year in the secondary sector we’re 23% down on recruitment of secondary teachers.

"That’s not sustainable. It impacts on schools but more importantly it impacts on the young people who need that success, particularly post-Covid.

Headteacher Glyn Potts says repeated failure to recruit and retain teachers is 'unsustainable'

Glyn is one of a growing number of people in the sector calling for a more pragmatic approach to recruitment - including easing restrictions on asylum seekers.

Glyn, who was in the army before going into education, said he would “absolutely” take an asylum seeker like Rachael to address staff shortages, with the right checks in place.

"Absolutely - why wouldn’t we [take someone like her]? I understand there has to be a system to make sure it is done in the right, fair process.

"But this is about providing our young people with the very best people. It’s not about providing young people with the very best people by passport."

The charity Refugee Action is campaigning for work restrictions to be lifted. They have calculated that allowing refugees to work could save the Treasury as much as £330 million.

This figure, which their chief executive Tim Naor Hilton says is a "conservative estimate" is based on increased tax revenues from asylum seekers working and decreased welfare payments to them.

Refugee Action calculates £332 million is savings based on an estimate of 50% of the almost 100,000 asylum seekers in the UK - who have been waiting more than six months for their claim to be processed - taking up work.

"This is simply common sense", Refugee Action chief exeuctive Tim Naor Hilton told ITV News at the charity's Manchester office.

"There is wide support for this across sectors and parties. 270 business organisations, recruiters, economists, faith groups and refugee charities."

"Not only would help address massive labour shortages, it would help the self-esteem and mental health of asylum seekers", he said.

Refugee Action said £330 million could be saved and 'massive' labour shortages could be addressed if work restrictions are lifted.

Hospitality is another sector impacted by staff shortages. David Vanderhook is a Greater Manchester restaurateur.

He told ITV News his sector has been hit hard by the "quadruple whammy" of Brexit, Covid, the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. These events, says David, have driven costs up and led to many staff members leaving.

Speaking at The Con Club, his Altrincham restaurant where energy bills have skyrocketed, David urged government to take a more pragmatic approach to address staff shortages.

"It's patently obvious that we're all really, really stretched. There isn't the skill in the market that we need."

David has struggled to recruit the chefs from abroad he needs due to Home Office visa restrictions. And there is shortage of British people willing to take on similar roles in the industry. "It's really, really tough at the moment, and [staff] just aren't in the UK", he said.

David said he would support an easing of restrictions on asylums seekers working, with the necessary checks.

"All the time [asylum seekers] are waiting they're costing the country money so just crack on, get it done.

"I know they have to do checks but maybe they just need to do them a bit faster", he said.

'Just crack on, get it done': this restaurant owner would support an easing of restrictions with the right checks in place.

These words were echoed by Sacha Lord, Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester.

"If there are people in this country who want to work in hospitality, let's cut through the red tape, let's get people working and let's try and save this sector", he said.

Sacha said addressing staff shortages and supporting hospitality is especially important as businesses go into the Christmas period. He is asking people to "Give the gift of going out" this Christmas by taking family and friends to bars, restaurants and theatres after a tough few years for the sector.

Sacha told ITV News that "hard times will get even harder" for the sector if staff shortages aren't addressed.

'Let's get people working and let's try and save this sector': Greater Manchester's Night time Economy Adviser told ITV News.

The Home Office says work restrictions are in place to "protect the integrity" of the asylum system and to discourage people coming to the UK for economic reasons rather than "legitimate" asylum claims. The Home Office also highlighted that it pays asylum support and encourages asylum seekers to volunteer.

Rachael does volunteer but for her, this simply isn't the same as working

"Every day you feel your value diminshes", she said.

"Not working is so isolating...you feel useless, bearing that burden of not working of being reduced to a beggar because you just stay home all day."

For Rachael - and thousands in her situation - each day out the workforce is another day of wasted potential and missed opportunity.