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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 July, 2003, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Asylum questions: Can we afford them?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Asylum seeker
Benefits: Asylum seekers are no longer allowed to work
In the fourth of our questions on asylum, we ask what migration costs and contributes to the UK economy.

Can the UK afford the asylum seekers who come to our shores? Are they getting unfair handouts or do they ultimately contribute more than they get?

Perhaps above all else, rumours of asylum seekers getting "something for nothing" is one of the most persistent.

Take Wigan in north-west England for example. The town of 301,000 is 99.2% white. When 1,500 asylum seekers were settled there last year, rumours started that they were getting redecorated homes, luxury white goods and free cars.

The council responded with a leaflet (see internet links) telling locals that, no, none of the rumours was true.

But the council still gets the complaints which shows how difficult it is to persuade people otherwise.

System costs

What is without doubt is that the asylum system is enormous and, by its very nature, expensive.

In the financial year ending in 2002, the asylum and immigration system cost 1.7bn. That's a lot of money - but for a government which spent 400bn last year, it's the equivalent of the Chancellor losing his wallet.

There are hidden costs in the asylum system, such as additional funding to schools, but they add very little to the main figure.

Working rights

Asylum seekers used to be able to work if they had been waiting six months for a decision.

The government banned all working last year which means those who cannot support themselves sit on benefits while they wait.

256: Iraq
156: Afghanistan
64: Iran
34: Pakistan
33: Somalia
32: Sudan
26: DR Congo
Source: BMA
This has produced some odd situations. The British Medical Association says it knows of asylum 872 seeker doctors, most of whom still cannot work.

At the same time, the government is spending money recruitment doctors from abroad.

At the other end of the spectrum, many economists say we have a major shortage of low or no-skilled workers.

Farmers, for example, successfully lobbied government to expand foreign work permits because they couldn't find enough local people to life the crops at harvest.

This, says United Nations population experts, is part of a larger problem for Europe. They say the EU (including the UK) needs 1.4m immigrants a year until 2050 to make sure we can all pay for an ageing population's pensions.

Migration balance sheet

But who ultimately gains from migration? The short answer is most people gain, mostly modestly, albeit with caveats.

Last year the government published its first ever study of the balance between how much migrants pay in taxes compared to the amount they receive through benefits and other public services such as the NHS.

No separate study of asylum seekers has been carried out - not does it take into account those working illegally and not paying tax.

The research concluded that in 1999-2000 migrants contributed 31.2bn in taxes and consumed 28.8bn in benefits and services - a profit to the Treasury of 2.5bn.

Secondly, other research tends to show migrants are more productive, providing they speak or are taught the language, and often find niches that create jobs - such as the curry house.

So what about fears of stealing jobs? One US study suggests the poorest and least skilled can suffer in a battle over wages at the bottom end of the jobs market. The poorest also tend to be immigrants themselves.

The other side of this coin is that in many sectors, and particularly in London and agriculture, there would be a crises if the churn of migrant Labour ceased because there is apparently no one prepared to take the lowest-paid and dirtiest jobs.

Even if the wages are terrible, long hours with no days off can pay off for those wanting to send money home.

Development experts say this cash sent home is essential to grow poor economies, develop trade and support international efforts towards regional stability.

These foreign earnings can transform communities. In many areas of the world, men who work abroad for a few years are considered among the upstanding in their communities on their return.

For example, some $45m is thought to have gone into the ChangLe area of China from foreign workers in the mid-1990s.

Given this kind of success, it is perhaps no surprise that ChangLe was the home to many of the 58 men and women who suffocated in a lorry in 2000 as they tried to illicitly enter Britain.

They would have known the risks of such an illegal enterprise - but had they made it, the rewards for their communities would have been enormous.

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