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Let asylum-seekers work legally

04 September 2020

It would allow them to rebuild their lives and help struggling companies, says Paul Butler


A group of people thought to be asylum-seekers are brought into Dover by Border Force officers last week

A group of people thought to be asylum-seekers are brought into Dover by Border Force officers last week

IN OUR churches, we tell the story about a man who was attacked by robbers on the road. As he lay wounded, people passed him and hurried on their way. Who helped him? Not those from his own community. Instead, a stranger saw the man’s plight, carried him to safety, and took care of his needs. This man, Jesus observed, was truly a good neighbour. In light of this, who is our neighbour in a global age?

Since the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, the UK helped to lead the world in rescuing those fleeing persecution and conflict through its refugee resettlement scheme. This year, we were set to celebrate the launch of a new Global Resettlement Scheme, which would provide sanctuary to more than 5000 refugees per year.

The new scheme was paused because of the pandemic. But, as international travel becomes possible again, there is still no sign that resettlement is restarting. This must change urgently.

This resettlement scheme is vital — but so, too, is the need to think creatively and constructively about other ways in which we can help refugees rebuild their lives somewhere safe. The United Nations estimates that, globally, there are 26 million refugees, desperate to rebuild their lives.

This means not seeing refugees as objects only of compassion — or of fear. When we look to our neighbour’s needs, we also recognise that refugees are people with skills, talents, motivation, and dreams of building a new life in a new land. What if we saw the person we stopped to help as gift as well as responsibility?

Refugees in places such as Lebanon and Jordan, who are fleeing the conflict in Syria, are not permitted to work legally. They are dependent on handouts, and their lives are on hold. A lack of safe and legal routes to settle somewhere safe, such as the UK, is one reason that some risk their lives on a flimsy boat or a lorry, placing their future in the hands of unscrupulous people-traffickers — an act of appalling desperation.

Almost half the world’s refugees are of working age. Many of them have God-given talents that are going to waste. Employers in the UK, meanwhile, face critical skills shortages. Is it beyond our imagination to connect the two for the benefit of all?


KHALAF fled the Syrian civil war with his family at the end of 2013. Unable to work legally in Lebanon, Khalaf’s life was on hold, unable to use his skills to support his family. Talent Beyond Boundaries connected him to Iress, a multinational software development company with offices in London and Cheltenham. Iress interviewed him, and after Khalaf passed a coding test with distinction, they recruited him as a software engineer and sponsored him and his family for a regular work visa.

No place was taken on a humanitarian resettlement scheme, no public money was spent. But a forcibly displaced person is now able to rebuild his family’s life, while a UK company has a highly motivated, skilled employee whom they could not find elsewhere. What if we expanded this one-off approach to benefit more refugees, their families, and UK employers?

That is why I have tabled an amendment to the Immigration Bill to create a new Displaced Talent Visa. This would level up access to visas for displaced people such as Khalaf, who should be able to apply for skilled jobs at UK companies, if barriers were not there, such as the need for specific documentation that cannot be obtained from a refugee camp.

This approach has been piloted successfully elsewhere, and would complement — not compete with — the vital routes of humanitarian resettlement and community sponsorship. Moreover, it would shift a perception that refugees and asylum-seekers are burdensome objects of charity or fear, and would, instead, foster support for other important changes, with cross-party support, including permitting asylum-seekers to work to support themselves rather than rely on benefits.

Khalaf described getting the job and the visa to come to the UK as being thrown a rope when you are stuck in the bottom of a deep well. At a time when we need creative new ideas for addressing the global challenges of migration, throwing a rope to forcibly displaced people such as Khalaf — our global neighbours in need — seems worth while.


THE 66th Psalm is a reminder to the people of God to praise him for his continued faithfulness, as the God who had brought Israel out of exile in Egypt to their homeland. “We went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance,” the Psalmist sings.

Refugees today are fleeing conflict and persecution through fire and water — quite literally, as the flimsy boats attempting to cross the Channel remind us. Those of us who have experienced the abundance of God — and who live in this peaceful nation, free from war and persecution — have the opportunity to offer out of that abundance the sanctuary and the new start that refugees need.

In turn, new ideas such as the Displaced Talent Visa will enable these displaced people to use their God-given skills and talents for the benefit of all.


The Rt Revd Paul Butler is the Bishop of Durham and a parliamentary representative of the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy (RAMP) project.

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