The ‘Refugee Penalty’: Researching the Lives of Asylum Migrants to the UK

Approximately 30,000 people apply to the UK for asylum every year, and about half of those are eventually granted protection. Most have fled civil war or face torture or persecution in their home country. But what happens to them after that? And how do their outcomes compare to those of the native population and other immigrants?

These questions are being addressed by University of Oxford economists. Dr Isabel Ruiz (pictured above), Fellow and Tutor in Economics at Harris Manchester College, has been studying the labour market outcomes of refugees (also known as asylum migrants) in the UK.

The government’s annual Labour Force Survey looks at the employment circumstances of the UK population, and is a rich source of data about employment status, education and training opportunities, family responsibilities and health. In 2010, the survey introduced a question asking foreign-born respondents why they came to the UK, enabling researchers to distinguish between economic migrants and asylum migrants. (Asylum migrants are people whose asylum applications have been granted, as opposed to people who are seeking asylum.)

Using data from 2010-2017, Dr Ruiz and her colleagues have studied the economic experiences of asylum migrants in the UK. 

‘We’ve looked at how refugees compare to other migrants and to UK natives, including aspects such as wages, hours worked, health outcomes and the likelihood of engagement in entrepreneurship,’ she says. The results of the research were presented in March at a conference at Queen Mary University of London called Forced Displacement, Asylum Seekers and Refugees: Economics Aspects and Policy Issues.

Refugees have worse outcomes than other migrants

In 2017, analysis of the survey figures showed, an estimated 374,000 foreign-born individuals who originally migrated for asylum reasons were living in the UK – about 4% of the foreign-born population of the country. The top five countries of birth of asylum migrants were Somalia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Zimbabwe. About 54% are male – a lower proportion than amongst migrants in general.

When it comes to the economic and health impacts, the main finding is that there’s a ‘refugee penalty,’ says Dr Ruiz. ‘Refugees tend to have poorer socioeconomic or labour market outcomes in terms of wages, in terms of hours worked and in terms of health outcomes.’

Asylum migrants are 12 percentage points less likely to be in employment, for example, than people born in the UK, and the gap remains even after 25 years in the UK. On average, asylum migrants earn an average of £9 per hour and £285 per week.

Taken as a whole, says Dr Ruiz, migrants to the UK (and indeed to other countries) tend to start out healthier than the native population, but over time the difference levels out. ‘Whereas with refugees,’ she says, ‘what we find is that they start out lower – they have worse health outcomes than the natives and migrants. And they do not catch up with the natives.’

Close to 37% of asylum migrants report a health condition lasting longer than 12 months, while a quarter of asylum migrants reported having mental health problems.

Another finding was that, compared with other migrants and natives, refugees are more likely to be in self-employment: about one in five of those who work are self-employed. Adjusting for socio-demographic characteristics, asylum migrants in employment are eight percentage points more likely to be in self-employment than the UK-born.

Many refugees have lived through trauma

Of course, the raw data doesn’t tell us the reasons for these differences. Dr Ruiz speculates, however, that asylum migrants ‘already have worse health outcomes from the moment they arrived.’

It is to be expected that asylum migrants have greater levels of mental illness because ‘many of them have to endure not only tough trips to come here but also the trauma that they lived through at home.’ It’s also possible, she thinks, that because asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their claim is being processed, the forced period of inactivity may have a negative impact on their skills and on their mental health:  ‘We tend to find that they are not as effective as [economic] migrants in finding employment, so that might be related to the way they are dependent on the government, leading them to choose different methods from other migrants.’

Some policy makers have argued that if we allowed asylum seekers to work earlier in the process, that might improve their labour market outcomes. It is a controversial suggestion, however, says Dr Ruiz, ‘because people might say if we make it that easy it might act as a pull factor and people might want to come more, so it’s not straightforward one way or the other.’

One of the things the research highlights, says Dr Ruiz, is the need for ‘better documenting of how people are doing and data that helps understand their assimilation patterns.’ Work carried out by non-government organisations in helping asylum migrants to find jobs and obtain access to finance is valuable, however: ‘The fact that asylum migrants are eventually going into self-employment might indicate that they are a population in need of access to finance to start small businesses, and access to education would facilitate the speed of integration.’


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Published 1 April 2019