Photo by Emmanuel Walusimbi via Iwaria
Image: © Emmanuel Walusimbi via Iwaria

I want to work. But without my legal refugee status I’m not allowed.

This article is part of our Voices of the Economy series. The project brings together the economic experiences and opinions of people from a range of different backgrounds and showcases voices which are not heard as often when we talk about the economy. To find out more and share your own story, click here.

This article was co-written by J, a young asylum seeker, and Mona Bani, co-director of May Project Gardens. May Project Gardens works mostly with unaccompanied minors (children under the age of 18 who arrive in the UK alone).

Through their youth programme Hip Hop Garden, they try to understand what being a young asylum seeker or refugee really means; what the lives of these young people are like as a consequence of their legal status and being far from their homes and families.

Photo by Tyck via Iwaria

The UK is home to approximately 1% of the 29.6 million refugees forcibly displaced across the world. 40% of refugees around the world are children. In 2018 almost 3,000 children came to the UK by themselves to seek asylum. They are referred to as unaccompanied minors. 

Asylum seekers do not come to the UK to claim benefits. Most know nothing about our welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support prior to arrival. Their expectation is to find safety and work. People seeking asylum are often living on Home Office support equivalent to just over £5 per day.

The young people we work with, at different stages of their asylum process, are all desperate to find work. It’s the thing they come to us for the most. And as a community project with funding to offer them support towards food, educational activities, travel etc, they are actually very resistant to receiving it, even from us. They want to feel that they can support themselves.

One of them is J, a young boy we work with at May Project Gardens, who arrived in the UK by himself as a minor, from Eritrea, and who’s desperately awaiting his status and wanting to work in the UK. Here’s his story:


I came to the UK alone when I was 16 hoping for safety. I’ve been here 2.5 years and I still don't have status which means I still can't work in this country. 

I’m 19 years old now. I’m an adult. I want to have my own money. I want to work. I should be able to have my own money to support myself and be independent. A lot of people think of us, asylum seekers, as lazy or think that we don’t want to work. I really want to work. I like it. But without my legal refugee status I’m not allowed.

So instead I have to live on the money I get from the council. All I get is £57.9 per week. That has to cover everything; my travel, my food, anything I need for the house. It’s not enough to live or to enjoy life.

I live in a house with another boy from Iraq who has got his status now so he’s a refugee. Quite a few of my friends have also got their status confirmed which means they can work. Many of them have managed to find odd jobs. They do shifts in shops, restaurants, sometimes gardening and when we go out together they can pay for more things; they can buy food and drinks and enjoy themselves. This is really hard for me and it makes me worried that I don’t know when I’ll ever be able to earn money.

Without my status, I don’t even have access to the benefits system here. I had my interview with the Home Office two years ago and I’m still waiting for an answer on my status. In that time the state has to cover my weekly support when they could just give me status and let me work as I’m in the country anyway. I could be contributing to society, and supporting myself, but I’m not allowed to. 

If I could, what I want to do is make furniture; like a carpenter. I’d love to do a course in it. It’s something I tried when I was a kid back home in Eritrea. I’d make stuff.

I do go to college here but all I study there is ESOL (English as a second language). As a legal adult now I don’t have access to the universal free education that exists for minors in the UK and any courses I’d want to take to further my education, cost money, which I don’t have.


As part of our Hip Hop Garden programme we support young refugees and asylum seekers with educational workshops and (paid) work experience wherever possible.

This summer we’re building a sustainable, outdoor classroom, built entirely from natural materials, such as clay, at our community garden site in Morden. We’ll work with young people like J to build it, so they learn tangible skills; natural building, carpentry, decorating and landscaping.

We’re working with the social enterprise VIY who with the support from the GLA, help renovate community premises across London and offer young people free City & Guild qualifications in the process. You can help us fund qualifications for more young people by donating to this project here.

And if you’d like to economically empower young people like J, you can buy the track ‘Freedom Now’ written and performed by the boys on our HHG programme, about their journeys to the UK. All sales of the track go directly to them, to give them economic autonomy.

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