“You Have to Work…But You Can’t”: Contradictions of Active Labour Market Policies for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Francesca Calo, Tom Montgomery and Simone Baglioni. Click here to access the article.

The issue of migration has been a contentious policy issue and public discourse terrain in the UK for decades, exemplified by the Brexit campaign and the Windrush scandal. More recently, it has resurfaced in recent months during the war in Ukraine that has consequently led to an increasing number of refugees. In recent decades there has been some space for political elites to recalibrate the narratives around migration to better fit the history of the country and the demands of the labour market. This refocusing of the political narratives surrounding migration has borrowed from a mainstream policy discourse of ‘deservingness’ and therefore has developed alongside an assumption that migrants must prove their ‘worth’ to their host country.

Much of this deservingness is framed around the capacity to contribute to economic growth, and thus being economically self-reliant. Our study aims at exploring if these narratives have been sustained after 2014, which has seen an increasing number of refugees following the war in Syria. Second, we seek to understand if (and eventually how) employment support for refugees and asylum seekers has changed after 2014 and if this is more, or less, aligned with policy narratives. To do so, we analysed more than 70 UK Government documents to explore narratives around migration and integration in the labour market. Furthermore we conducted 30 interviews and two focus groups involving public sector officials, third sector organisation managers, trade unionists, refugees and asylum seekers to understand if and how the services provided enabled or hindered labour market integration. 

Our findings reveal some key contradictions at the heart of labour market integration in the UK. On the one hand, there is an emphasis on deservingness, coupled with policy discourses that construct an environment shaped by the cost of migration. On the other hand, the UK presents a policy architecture that is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways in terms of the support mechanisms necessary to ensure that newcomers and in particular refugees and asylum seekers can successfully integrate into the labour market.

We show that the UK Government and UK political parties after 2014 often articulated discourses regarding the labour market integration of migrants (without differentiating between migrants, refugees and asylum seekers) that emphasised the negative effects of migration and the importance of controlling the numbers (as well as the characteristics) of people arriving in the UK. This confirms previous literature which found that only those deemed to be hardworking, arriving to make a “genuine” contribution or that can be considered “genuine refugees” are deemed to be deserving, are welcomed into UK society and are allowed to pursue a path of integration. Newcomers and in particular refugees – but even more so, asylum seekers – find themselves navigating a political context that constructs them as both a burden and a threat. A burden in terms of perceived pressures on the welfare state and public services and a threat to the livelihoods of native workers and their living standards in relation to their wage levels or as in the case of asylum seekers even a threat to the community.

If these discourses are taken at face value, we may reasonably expect there may be corollary policies and practices in place to ensure the smooth and swift integration of newcomers into the UK labour market. Instead, we find the contrary. Not only do policies exist which limit those claiming asylum from working; those who are entitled to work in the current policy architecture find themselves navigating a landscape of support that is fragmented, underfunded and guiding newcomers towards pathways of precarious and poorly paid work. 

The difficulties experienced when seeking access to language classes and vocational training alongside the lack of recognition of skills and qualifications affect newcomers prior to accessing employment. In addition, immigration policies were widely considered to be very restrictive, bureaucratic, and expensive both for newcomers and employers. The work ban experienced by asylum seekers also has a long-term negative impact on the lives of asylum seekers and refugees given that they often struggle to find employment once they have refugee status due for example to their diminished self-confidence, the gap that has emerged in their CVs during the asylum application process and the loss or outdated nature of their skills. Once the migration policies are overcome, employability programmes, aside from a few exceptional cases, fail to take into consideration the specific needs of refugees and asylum seekers. Moreover, the fragmentation of services across different providers and geographies as well as a lack of awareness and funding constitute a further weakness in the infrastructure of support for newcomers that reduces opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers to access these vital supports (Calo et al 2021). 

Finally, anti-discrimination policies and to some extent anti-exploitation policies often do not have the necessary teeth to enforce their supposed purpose and although they could be considered as a facilitator, the lack of investment in these policies seriously restricts their potential impact. The British reality, therefore, seems to manifest as a contradictory context where rhetoric draws upon longstanding tropes of deservingness while the on-the-ground reality can often mirror welfare chauvinistic attitudes deterring any meaningful, sustainable, and long-term plan for newcomers’ integration through employment. 

Our hope is that through this type of research – revealing the on-the-ground reality and its contrast with policy narratives – can help to underline the importance for policy makers to, at the very least, support and fund policies that can enable refugees and asylum seekers and migrants to all have a decent work and decent futures.

About the authors

Francesca Calo is Lecturer in Management at the Open University.

Tom Montgomery is Lecturer in Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Simone Baglioni is Professor at the University of Parma.


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