Nine Afghan men who fled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan six years ago by hijacking a plane and forcing it to fly to Britain have added their voices to calls on the government to allow asylum seekers to work.
In a statement, the asylum seekers said they had skills to offer and that they were not interested in "sponging" off the state. They called the fact that they have been kept idle for the past six years an affront to common sense. Instead of living on state benefits, they could have been working and contributing to society.
"We are desperate to work, as before we came to this country, all of us had worked to support ourselves and our families from a very young age," they said.
The men were jailed for the hijacking in 2001. In 2003, they won an appeal against their convictions. Last week, the High Court granted them permission to stay in Britain. The government said it would appeal that decision.
"We can't have a situation in which people who hijack a plane, we're not able to deport back to their country," Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work until their application has been approved. If refused asylum, they are also denied benefits.
Taxpayers have had to foot the bill to keep the nine men in Britain — an estimated £15 million ($28.4 million) — because they have been under strict immigration controls and unable to work.
According to a report by the Information Center about Asylum and Refugees (I.C.A.R.), not allowing asylum seekers to work "constitutes a significant barrier to any potential economic contribution they might make, both in terms of its immediate restriction on employment but also in terms of the long-term effects of periods of forced unemployment."
Citing a study published by the Home Office in 2002, the report says migrants -- a category that includes asylum seekers and refugees -- "contributed £2.5 billion [$4.7 billion] more in taxes than they consumed in benefits and services in 1999/2000."
Other studies "suggested that asylum seekers and refugees have higher than average educational, skills and qualification levels, high levels of motivation, and that the majority are young males of working age."
"Given these characteristics, it is likely that, along with other categories of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have a great deal to offer their host country if initial obstacles can be overcome," the report says.
In November 2005, Labor member of Parliament, Kate Hoey tabled an Early Day Motion (E.D.M.) to try to persuade the government to grant asylum seekers the right to work. Although the motion is specific to Zimbabweans, if the E.D.M. receives enough support, it will benefit all asylum seekers regardless of nationality.
"There are Zimbabweans I know personally who have been reduced to destitution within the past few weeks even though they have skills we really need in this country such as teaching and nursing," said Hoey. "We can't send them back to Mugabe's tyranny, so it is common sense they should be allowed to work for their living."
So far, 76 members of Parliament have signed the petition.
Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, has also backed the call for the right to work:
"It is inexcusable that we are still forcing vulnerable people into destitution. It is even worse that many of these people have valuable skills and talents that could benefit both the U.K. economy and society. If people are unable to return home, they should be properly supported and offered the opportunity to work and contribute."
In an article in The Sunday Times (May 14), Alex Delmar-Morgan adds that an upcoming report by the Church of England reminds the British government that it has, in Delmar-Morgan's words, "an international, moral and legal responsibility to welcome those fleeing adversity from other parts of the world and to provide them with social security."
According to Delmar-Morgan, the report calls on Britain to "lead rather than follow public opinion on immigration, refugees and asylum policy."
The report, titled "Faithful Cities," is due out on May 22.
This article was first published on the World Press Review.