Perspective on Right to Work for asylum seekers

Anna Scrivener from Nottingham Refugee Forum writes in a personal capacity :

‘Beyond the right to work’

For all of us immersed in refugee issues it sadly comes as no surprise that they are amongst the most underemployed groups in the UK, finding it hard to transfer their skills into a new environment. However, there is a lot of research to demonstrate that employment is one of the best ways to empower people and help them integrate into their new home, reducing isolation, supporting language development and improving mental wellbeing. 18-months ago I took on the challenge to develop a brand new Employability Programme for this group.

The policy motion passed at Autumn Conference aims to tackle the ‘right to work’ injustice and I strongly support that. Some of the clients we work with at Nottingham & Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum (NNRF) have been in the asylum system for many years before getting this right. One particular lady I worked with received status only after 10-years. This creates many additional barriers to their ability to gain employment later down the track, and can lead to an erosion of skills and confidence. However, I don’t think it is the end of the battle, I want to call on my fellow Lib Dems to DEMAND BETTER.

A large proportion of the clients we work with are from the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) and so the right to work is granted when they arrive. I see proud, hardworking men arrive to the UK with their families full of hope and I watch them turn into shadows of themselves, falling into the benefit trap and giving up on any real future for themselves as individuals. I have heard people justify this by saying it’s a pattern seen in other migrant communities, the hopes of the parents passed on to the children. But as a Liberal I don’t think we should be giving up on people, and as a Careers Advisor this waste of talent is unacceptable.

So why are so many failing even when they have status? There are many barriers to employment: language, cultural differences, lack of UK education/experience, trauma and depression. But for me there is also something more fundamental to this problem that isn’t solved by simply granting the right to work, this is the issue of identity. How much can they adapt into their new environment without losing their sense of self? Beyond the trauma they have experienced on their journey to the UK, this internal battle creates a new wave of trauma and in my opinion can have a significant long-term impact on mental wellbeing. For many their identity is rooted in their home countries and previous professions, they never envisaged leaving that. Now they are here and forced to reinvent themselves and it can mean letting go of the things that make up who they are. Particularly for older clients, where this is more established, this can be an overwhelming obstacle. So writing a client a CV or practicing interview questions is not enough, we have to help our clients overcome much deeper personal conflicts.

Policy needs to recognise the journey these people are on and that there are no quick wins. Employability Projects like mine, that are tailored to this group, need to be available to support that transition across the country if we want to enable refugees to become contributing members of our society. Mainstream National Careers Services are being consistently squeezed and have all but disappeared for adults. They cannot deal with the complex needs and starting points of our clients with an off the shelf solution anyway. This taps into issues close to the hearts of all Lib Dems: equality of opportunity, fair society and prevention of poverty.

The NNRF Employability Programme combines careers education with 1:1 individualised guidance. We have also worked with external partners on a number of initiatives including a mentor programme with Nottingham Trent University and Mechanics and Construction accredited training, delivered with interpreters, through a local independent school, FUEL. We have found it hard to reach out to women within the community so this year we held the first ‘Inspiring Women Conference’ which was a real celebration of women’s achievements, raising awareness of opportunity. These have been extremely successful projects and we continue to develop our provision based on emerging needs. However, the only reason my team exists is because of the funding attached to the VPRS which limits our reach to the wider Nottingham Refugee Community.

My call to action to fellow Lib Dems lobbying on these issues is that we can’t stop at the right to work, we also need to insist that the structures are in place for people to make the most of that right. That we give people the information they need to have agency in their new lives and to plan for their dreams. In this way they will become integrated and contributing members of our society more quickly. At the moment refugees face a system stacked against them with little or no support, unless they find a local MP willing to fight their case. We need equality of opportunity and a system that levels the playing field. After all refugees are an untapped seem of talent that we might just need more than ever after Brexit.

If you are interested in finding out more about the work of NNRF please visit our website: or email: LinkedIn:

Anna Scrivener – Employability Team Leader – Nottingham Refugee Forum

*Disclaimer: These are my personal views, made from observations over the course of my work and are not related to the political position of the organisation NNRF.*


Liberal Democrat policy on Right to Work is here Right to Work for Asylum Seekers