One of the major challenges for any city is matching the skills of its people to the needs of the local economy. In Bristol we have a problem with the diversity of our teachers – despite our increasingly diverse young population, we have a major need for more black and ethnic minority educators. So when Sara came to City Hall for a career event, it should have been a no brainer. She has trained as a teacher at University in her native Iran. She has several years’ experience teaching geography. Her English is perfect, and she’s desperate to contribute to society through work and progress her career. There’s only one problem - she’s an asylum seeker, and while her asylum application drags on and on, she’s forbidden from work and formal study, forced instead to live on a pathetic £37.75 per week support from the state.
As a city leader I come across many intractable and complex problems. But the most frustrating ones are the ones that are entirely of our own making and are so straightforward to fix – like allowing asylum seekers to work if their case is taking more than six months to resolve. It makes sense on every level. It’s good for the local economy, making the most of the skills available and boosting productivity and growth. It’s good for the asylum seekers themselves, giving them a chance to properly support themselves and their family and bringing all the well-known benefits to well-being that come from meaningful work. It’s good for integration, helping newcomers develop their language skills and understand our culture whilst changing perceptions of asylum seekers and refugees as an asset. It’s even good for the Treasury, saving money on welfare payments to people who could easily earn their way given the chance.
That’s why changing the rules and allowing asylum seekers to work draws support from across the political spectrum. In fact, it’s one of only a few issues that politicians from every political party can agree on these days. It’s supported by trade unions like Unison, think tanks like the libertarian Adam Smith Institute, faith institutions like the Church of England, charities like Asylum Matters, and businesses like Ben & Jerrys and the CBI.
And today I’m one of ten city leaders from the UK’s Core Cities to sign a letter to the Home Secretary Sajid Javid asking him to Lift the Ban and allow asylum seekers to work. As City Leaders we are happy to have the responsibility for helping the vast majority of the UK’s asylum seekers to feel welcome and safe into their new communities. But we can’t be successful in doing that unless they have the freedom to put their talents and skills to work. At the same time we are committed to doing everything we can to drive forward the cause of inclusive economic growth - but to do that we need the skills and abilities of all of our people. And as we speak with one voice to the Government, we are supported by cities from the US and around the world who are all able to benefit from the contribution of asylum seekers and see them as key assets in developing their local economies.
If the Government did change the rules, cities would be ready to make the most of it. In Bristol we’ve been running a programme of work taster sessions for asylum seekers, which is why Sara was able to come to City Hall and talk about developing her career here. We are also one of 6 cities involved in the Inclusive Cities project run by Oxford University which is helping us co-ordinate local stakeholders to maximise the contributions of newcomers to our economies and communities.
Of course allowing asylum seekers to work will not solve all of our problems or revolutionise our local economies. We are talking about a few thousand people dispersed across the country. But for those people and their families, giving them the dignity and freedom to put their skills to use and contribute to their new communities will mean the world. And for cities at the forefront of trying to hold together our increasingly diverse and often fractured communities, it would mean another step forward on the road to inclusion and integration. That’s worth fighting for.