Asylum-seekers’ and refugees’ right to work in Germany and the UK

Sioned Ellis, MSc Public Policy, University of Edinburgh

Recent events such as Brexit and the German federal election, combined with current and incoming migratory pressures like the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, make for an uncertain asylum policy future in Western Europe. Access to the labour market is a key issue given its importance for the wellbeing of asylum-seekers (those seeking refugee status) and refugees (those who are recognised as such), and for their chances of integration into their host societies. However, political consensus on the topic is limited, with considerable differences between European countries.

Such differences are particularly pronounced between Germany and the UK, known for their relative hospitality and self-confessed hostility, respectively. For example, while the UK’s ‘Syrian Vulnerable Persons Refugees Scheme’ pledged to accept 20,000 refugees in the five years following the 2015 crisis, Germany’s decision to temporarily suspend the Dublin agreement, meaning the first EU country an asylum-seeker reached would no longer be singularly responsible for them, contributed to them receiving around 477,000 applications for asylum in 2015 alone. Perhaps accordingly, asylum-seekers in Germany were and still are granted access to employment relatively quickly (after 3 months), whereas those arriving in the UK are largely confined to long-term dependence on state benefits. Both countries thus take substantially different approaches to that of the EU.


In the EU, the Reception Conditions Directive requires signatory Member States to grant asylum-seekers the right to work within 9 months of applying for asylum but allows States to determine the conditions under which this right is conferred. Those granted asylum should be free to work without restriction, while those under subsidiary protection – whose applications were rejected but who cannot (yet) be deported for safety reasons – may still be subject to a labour market test.

The EU has recognised that these restrictions are potentially too stringent given the gaps in labour markets caused by ageing European populations, and the opportunity presented by asylum-seekers to fill these gaps. Their attempts to encourage the migration of highly skilled workers, such as through the Blue Card Scheme, have had little success, and overlook the additional need for workers in supposedly ‘lower skilled’ sectors like care.

Thus, a 2016 proposal to revise the Reception Conditions Directive suggests reducing the 9-month target to 6 months in normal circumstances. Yet many Member States still lag behind the official 9-month target. Some have not even ratified the Directive; the UK was one such state during its membership.


The UK’s Immigration Rules, instead, decree that asylum-seekers cannot work at all while their application is being processed, unless they have been waiting for more than 12 months through no fault of their own, in which case the Home Office may allow them to work in one of the jobs on its extremely limited ‘shortage occupation list’. Once asylum has been granted, they can work without restriction.

According to Waite (2017), the long duration of restrictions is designed to prevent employment from acting as a ‘pull factor’ which might encourage economic migrants to enter the UK under the guise of asylum-seeking, despite the lack of evidence that this is a serious risk. A more real risk is that, without access to legitimate employment, asylum-seekers are pushed into exploitative work to escape what the Joint Committee on Human Rights has called “state-enforced destitution”.

By this account, unauthorised workers are powerless to challenge poor treatment by employers to whom they are disposable and deportable, and UK asylum policy has little interest in protecting them as their hardship is central to its design: it is based on the assumption that we can (and should) deter asylum-seeking by creating a “hostile environment”. Despite the obligation to protect, not punish, asylum-seekers under the UN Refugee Convention, the government’s stance on this issue is only hardening.


Germany’s approach is comparatively liberal, as asylum-seekers are not allowed to work for the first 3 months of their wait, after which point they are subject to a labour market test. If their application for asylum is accepted, they can work without restriction. After 15 months, asylum-seekers and those on subsidiary protection – called ‘Geduldete’ or ‘tolerated persons’ – can also work without restriction.

With regard to the labour market test, while final authorisation must be given by the Federal Employment Agency, decision-making power is relatively decentralised to municipal immigration bodies, so there can be some variation in implementation. Consistently, however, immigration officials have been found to draw on ideas of ‘deservingness’ which relate to the CARIN criteria (control, attitude, reciprocity, identity and need) first proposed by van Oorschot in relation to welfare.

Requirements around control – how much one can be blamed for one’s situation – and reciprocity – one’s contribution to society – are also embedded in German immigration law. Moreover, public discourse tends to separate deserving asylum-seekers from undeserving economic migrants. Even the official label of ‘Geduldete’ arguably implies undeservingness as those to whom it is applied are not accepted but tolerated; so it would seem that Germans feel some friction, too, with the idea of an entirely unconditional welcome for asylum-seekers.

Nonetheless, where institutional and personal prejudices remain, these seem to be at least partially countered by overall framings of migration in Germany as a potential asset rather than a hindrance. Public discourse lends more thought to the economic benefits of allowing all migrants to work – namely, reducing labour shortages and maintaining contributions to social security systems. Business associations in particular have pushed to open the market to asylum-seekers, with considerable results. Applying this to the UK, then, there may be some benefit from framing the issue not only in moral but also in self-interested practical terms: what can we gain?

Potential for change in the UK

The UK’s longstanding asylum policy relies on circular logic: asylum-seekers are a burden as they are dependent on the state, so to prevent them from being drawn to the country by economic opportunities, we must exclude them from the labour market, rendering them dependent on the state. As well as being discriminatory and feeding into anti-migration sentiments, this approach represents a missed opportunity for the economy and welfare system. This is something Germany recognises, and the EU is beginning to, yet the UK still does not.

A sustainable and just path forward must consider the needs of asylum-seekers and host countries as interrelated and mutually beneficial. Given the UK government’s record, it seems unlikely that they will open access to the labour market on humanitarian grounds any time soon. But perhaps the remaining avenue of economic self-interest is yet to be exhausted.