Asylum seekers: Would you flee the land of your birth for this?
Although many of those seeking refuge in the UK are well-qualified, they are prevented
from working and forced to live in poverty on state benefits. Colin Cottell speaks to
BY COLIN COTTELL
With their eager, intelligent faces, their PhDs, doctorates, degrees, diplomas and certificates, the
people around the table are just the type of people British employers are crying out for.
In another time, and in another place, many of them might have been part of the economic elite. But
here in the offices of a charity in a run-down building in north London that vision seems a bit
These men are asylum seekers and refugees from Ethiopia. They have escaped persecution in their
own country, only to find it replaced by another invidious form of deprivation - this time economic
rather than political.
Wond, a 35-year-old self-employed computer consultant, who didn't want his full name published, has
been in the UK for less than a year. With four years' computer experience in Ethiopia, his request is a
simple one - that, while he is in Britain, he should be allowed to use his skills. "I would like an
opportunity to contribute," he says. With a severe shortage of computer skills in the UK, it's not as if
the country couldn't do with his assistance.
"When I first arrived, there were jobs I could do as a programmer," he says. "I saw jobs in the paper,
but because my claim for asylum hadn't been decided I was not able to apply."
Wond's claim for asylum has since been rejected, so for the time being at least it is unlikely that he will
get the chance. Instead of the pounds 25,000 to pounds 35,000 per annum he could earn as a
computer programmer, he ekes out life on vouchers worth pounds 26.56 and pounds 10 cash a week.
He is also worried that his enforced absence from the labour market means he is unable to keep his
skills up to date.
It's not difficult to understand Wond's frustration. But it's something he may be forced to live with.
Home secretary David Blunkett talked recently about broadening the work permit system to help deal
with skill shortages, but there was nothing in his proposals to help asylum seekers already in the UK. A
Home Office spokesman confirmed asylum seekers' worst fears. "I think the answer is no - work
permits would not be aimed at those already in the country."
Alem Gebrehiwot, manager of the Ethiopian Community Centre in the UK, once an asylum seeker
herself, says the proposals don't go far enough. "Asylum seekers here welcome these proposals, but
we also want the government to consider those already in the UK. They have a lot of skills that the
country can use," she says.
Dr Bojia is a pathologist and medical doctor who, for 10 years, was one of Ethiopia's highest paid
professionals as head of a laboratory in Addis Ababa University. But since fleeing to the UK last year
with the scars of six police bullet wounds still fresh on his body, he has not worked.
In a country where there is a shortage of NHS doctors, he is perplexed as to why highly qualified
medical professionals are not allowed to apply for a work permit immediately they arrive in the UK.
Instead they must wait six months. "Highly qualified people should be allowed to start work straight
away," he says.
Muse, a doctor with four years' experience in Ethiopia, but originally trained in Cuba, agrees. "There
are a lot of professionals not allowed to contribute to society, and it causes great frustration," he says.
"I don't know why we cannot get some sort of retraining. You don't need to teach us. With just six
months retraining, I would definitely start work as a doctor here. If I was given a chance to work, I
would even pay back my training expenses."
Dr Bojia argues that concerns that giving asylum seekers an immediate right to work would take away
jobs from British-born workers are misplaced. "Particularly among professionals, such as teachers and
doctors, using highly skilled people already living in the UK will not have this effect because there is a
shortage," he says.
And even asylum seekers who aren't ready to compete immediately in the jobs' market should be
prepared for an economically useful life says Wondimu Mekonnen, an accountant who is working in
Watford while he appeals against the decision to refuse to allow him to stay in the UK. "Waiting six
months is too long. [The government should] use that time to help people, especially the unskilled, to
get used to their environment. But to ban someone from ever working, I don't understand it," he says.
Granting asylum seekers permission to work would have other benefits too, says Yonnas Tasew, who
worked in retailing in Ethiopia before coming to the UK in 1996. "Allowing them to work would help
to give asylum seekers a better image," he says. Dr Bojia agrees. "People have told me in a friendly
way that I am sucking up taxpayers' money," he says.
And he is quick to refute the view that asylum seekers are economic migrants taking advantage of a
UK with streets paved of gold. "The first thing coming here was to save my life," he says. "Only after
that did I think of working in my area of expertise. I only knew of the six-month rule after I had applied
Mr Mekonnen rejects the idea that professionals would come here for any other reason than to flee
persecution. "In Ethiopia being a doctor, like Dr Bojia, is respected. Here, who am I except a 'bloody
foreigner'? Over there professionals lead a better life, with good food, and decent housing," he says.
As a front-line worker helping asylum seekers, Ms Gerbrehiwot knows first-hand the effects of current
regulations. The first six months here, when people are in limbo - waiting for a decision on their asylum
claim and yet not allowed to work - are especially difficult, she says. "Waiting six months causes
depression and trauma, people feel very isolated, and eventually it can cause mental illness."
Feleke, who has qualifications in electrical engineering and video making, and is now a youth worker,
remembers his early days in the UK in 1994.
"When I came here, my documents said I wasn't allowed to look for a job. I wanted to contribute to
the community. There was nothing to do; it wasn't easy to go out. During the day time I used to sleep, I
felt isolated and depressed."
Mr Tasew has similar memories. "When you are not allowed to work it is very hard in this country.
You have no money for basic needs, you feel inferior to other people here in London. You are
unhappy; you are deprived of your rights," he says.
In the meantime, despite all its uncertainties, life must go on. "I have great aspirations," says Tasew,
who plans to do a computer course. "I can't just lie down and do nothing because of the regulations of
the country. If there is the opportunity to develop my career, I will be here for the next five to 10 years,
helping myself and contributing to the economy."
For Dr Bojia that has finally become a realistic prospect. He is starting a course in 2002, which will
allow him to practice his profession here. "Although I have a slight health problem, I think I am
optimistic," he says.
But whether the thousands of other asylum seekers denied the right to work in the UK have cause to
share his optimism remains to be seen.
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