Ask the Expert: Do welfare support and labour market access ‘pull’ asylum seekers to the UK?

In our latest ESRC-sponsored Ask the Expert seminar, Dr Lucy Mayblin, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sheffield, assessed the evidence on whether welfare support and labour market restrictions attract asylum seekers to Britain.

Since the late 1990s, the debate surrounding asylum seekers shifted from being primarily political to economic: individuals seeking asylum were increasingly perceived as economic migrants who are cheating the system to access the country in order to receive welfare benefits and/or gain the right to work.

Current policy landscape

Asylum seekers in the UK are not permitted to work, unless they are hired in detention and remunerated at a rate of £1.00 – £1.25 per hour. In absence of a right to work, welfare support of £37.75 per week is provided. This sum amounts to 50% of the Job Seekers Allowance and is believed to be sufficient to cover an individual’s basic needs until a decision has been reached on whether refugee status will be granted. If successful, refugees then have access to the main benefits system and have the right to seek employment.

Dr Mayblin criticised the current set of policies as having negative impacts on the wellbeing of asylum seekers. Individuals seeking asylum in Britain are often impoverished, report high levels of hunger and mental health problems, and exhibit high levels of maternal and infant mortality and a higher incidence of domestic violence. Asylum seekers lack the resources to participate in normal social activities, which leads to social isolation from the general population and feeling stigmatised. Additionally, these individuals often find it difficult to navigate the legal process of obtaining refugee status.

‘Push’ factors

‘Push’ factors describe the set of reasons which influence individuals to leave their current home and seek residence in another country. Asylum applications increase when there are incidences of genocide, political violence, inter-state war and civil war (especially civil wars which involve foreign military intervention). Dr Mayblin noted that most individuals tend to seek asylum in their neighbouring countries.

The level of economic development of the recipient country had no significant statistical relationship with asylum migration; global studies have concluded that poverty in itself does not cause migration through asylum.

‘Pull’ factors

Dr Mayblin summarised a number of qualitative and quantitative studies which attempt to identify the factors attracting asylum seekers to recipient countries.

  • An existing refugee population in the host country has been proven to be correlated with the number of asylum applications from co-national individuals seeking asylum;
  • Colonial ties between the sending and host countries has been shown to be correlated with a higher number of asylum applications;
  • Quantitative research has consistently failed to find a correlation between deterrence and processing measures in the host country and its reception of asylum seekers and the number of asylum applications;
  • No studies have found any correlation between welfare rates or labour market access and asylum seekers’ choice of destination;
  • Recent findings suggest that recognition rates affect the destination choice of asylum seekers who are already in Europe;
  • Qualitative research has found that asylum seekers place social networks, their language ability, and colonial ties as preferences which influence their destination decision. Additionally, asylum seekers report that they are attracted to Britain as they believe it is a fair country where the rule of law and human rights are respected.

Dr Mayblin highlighted that very little is known about the journeys undertaken by asylum seekers which end up with an actual application for asylum. Individuals often have imperfect knowledge of potential destinations and are unlikely to successfully execute a plan to end up in a specific host country. Additionally, they face a number of intermediaries who might influence their decisions, such as smugglers, border guards, police, and humanitarian actors.

The case of Calais

The common-sense reasoning that economic factors such as welfare support ‘pull’ asylum seekers towards countries like the UK have been shown not to be the main influence behind an individual’s decision to seek asylum in Britain. Research based on interviewing asylum seekers in Calais also supports this claim.

Many asylum seekers in the Calais camp are trying to gain entry to the UK; however, they predominantly cite language, colonial history, and links to friends and family as their main motivators (rather than gaining the right to participate in the labour market or claim welfare support).

Dr Mayblin highlighted that a sizeable minority of those living in the Calais camp are waiting to seek asylum in France, with some waiting for up to five months to be assigned accommodation. The rest are stuck between trying to find a destination in the rest of Europe and being sent back to their first country of entry, such as Greece or Italy.

In her concluding remarks, Dr Mayblin stressed that the rationale behind economic pull factor theory does not arrive at a clear conclusion to why individuals choose to apply for asylum in Britain – however, the story is much more complex than simply being eligible to receive welfare support and eventually gain the right to have a job.


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