The Home Office will change its guidelines to say volunteering is lawful for refused asylum seekers after a campaign by Refugee Action.
The charity’s Right to Volunteer campaign, launched in June, called on the government to change its guidance on volunteering for asylum seekers so that people were not excluded from sharing their skills.
A letter to Dave Garratt, chief executive of Refugee Action, from the Home Office’s head of asylum policy states: "We have reviewed our approach and secured agreement from the immigration minister that the guidance ought to make clear that undertaking volunteering is lawful, including for failed asylum seekers, but that we expect failed asylum seekers to return home, the government does not support their volunteering and it will not delay their removal."
However, the letter also says that doing any "voluntary work" is not lawful, whether by asylum seekers or failed asylum seekers.
According to Home Office guidance, volunteers are not workers for the purposes of the national minimum wage and do not qualify for it, whereas voluntary workers are workers but are exempt from being paid the national minimum wage so they can give their time for free to charitable or public sector organisations.
A key element in establishing whether someone is a voluntary worker, as opposed to a volunteer, is whether there is an obligation on the individual to perform the work and in return an obligation on the organisation to provide it, it says.
Emma Makarova, national volunteering manager at Refugee Action, said: "This will make a huge difference to people who have fled persecution and now want to give back their free time to the communities who host them.
"We have received many examples of where Home Office staff have wrongly threatened refused asylum seekers with imprisonment and fines unless they stopped volunteering. The guidance will make it clear that all asylum seekers can volunteer and do not need to seek permission to do so."
As part of the charity’s campaign, Nabil Al-inzy, a Refugee Action volunteer handed in a petition with more than 1,400 names calling for the Home Office to take urgent action.
The Home Office letter also states that people claiming asylum, including failed asylum seekers, can volunteer for public sector organisations.
Refugee Action’s campaign was supported by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Justin Davis Smith, executive director for volunteering at the NCVO, said: "The Home Office decision to update its guidance is excellent news. Asylum seekers who want to use their time and skills to give back to the community can now do so.
"We have been calling for this change for some time, because it will not only benefit public services in which asylum seekers can now volunteer, but will also help to promote integration and social cohesion."