On Tuesday 29 March, the Refugee Council and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) hosted a meeting on ESOL cuts in Portcullis House, Westminster.
The meeting debated the proposed ESOL cuts and raised awareness of the unintended impact this will have on women and other priority groups, including asylum seekers and refugees. The meeting was chaired by NIACE’s director, Alan Tuckett, and Jonathan Ellis, Director of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, was a keynote speaker.
Other speakers included ESOL learners, Refugee Community Organisations, ESOL tutors and researchers. The meeting was attended by a number of Parliamentarians from both Houses and from the three main parties.
Here is Jonathan Ellis’s speech in full:
“Being able to speak English is fundamental for refugees. The people we serve have been forced to come to the UK for protection, often fleeing for their lives. Learning English is a priority for rebuilding their lives here.
“This is the 60th anniversary year of the UN Refugee Convention, an international agreement which, following the horrors of the World War II, sought to provide safety to those facing persecution. This is a year to be proud of what the Convention has achieved, not to introduce policies that will mean refugees struggle to integrate. The government needs to make sure that every refugee can learn English.
“Why is learning English so important? The first reason is that refugees themselves say so. We know this through the people we serve, including ESOL learners in classes run by our amazing volunteers, research that we’ve carried and the voice of our members – refugee community organisations across the country. The message we get time and time again is that refugees want to learn English in order to speak with their neighbours, support their children in their school work, continue in their education or training and to get a job. But most of all it’s about empowerment, becoming independent and rebuilding your life here in the UK. Without ESOL, people need interpreters or community members to communicate and parents may have to rely on their children to translate and interpret for them: this is not fair on the parents and is unfair to the children.
“It is fundamentally important for refugees to be able to start learning English as soon as they arrive in the UK. We believe that integration starts at day one, the day a person claims asylum. The longer someone is unable to access ESOL, the more difficult it will be for them to learn English. We want to see asylum seekers eligible for ESOL from day one. This is vital as, during the asylum process, people are required to live in towns and cities all over the country, next door to English speaking neighbours. It’s important for social cohesion that asylum seekers learn English.
“And there is no way asylum seekers can afford to pay for courses. They are prevented from working by the government and live off poverty levels of support.
“But making sure asylum seekers can learn English also means that, if a person is granted refugee status, they are able to get on much more quickly without having to start from scratch or wait months before a place on an ESOL course becomes available. Many refugees will be on active and inactive benefits. It is important that all refugees who need English language support are eligible for ESOL funding. And we know it works. Here are three personal examples of people we’ve worked with.
“Marie Louise is a mother on income support who visited our Birmingham office. She started learning ESOL and after six months found a part time job
Sandra who started off on Entry level ESOL while claiming asylum is now a qualified teacher working in a school
Ahmed has requalifed as a doctor but started his retraining through attending an ESOL class.
“There are many more examples like these. But perhaps the strongest reason is that in enables refugees to integrate and become independent. One refugee we work with put it like this:
“I think the most helpful thing for integration is the English language, because if you can speak the English language then you can ask many people a question, and they can tell you about everything that you need to know. In some short time you can be able to speak English a little bit and through courses you can improve until you are ready to have a job or any of these things that you want.
“The most important thing for refugees is to be treated as equals and be able to contribute to UK society. ESOL is key to achieving this and we would urge the government to rethink its policy and make sure all refugees can get the English language support they need.”