"I feel like I'm living like a ghost because I cannot speak the language". Those are the words of Mahmoud*, a Syrian refugee who arrived in the UK in September 2015, after a long and perilous journey.
Having survived the horrors of conflict in Syria, Mahmoud was granted refugee status here in February. He is desperate to rebuild his life, and contribute to the country that has granted him sanctuary. For Mahmoud, learning to speak English is the key to unlocking his future here. However, his hopes of doing so are frustrated by a desperate lack of English language classes.
Mahmoud's situation is depressingly familiar. While politicians across all parties continue to talk of the need for migrant communities to learn English in order to properly integrate with British society, the reality is very different. All too often refugees struggle to move on with their lives because government cuts mean that they cannot access English language classes.
At Refugee Action we believe that political rhetoric needs to be met with action, which is why we have launched Let Refugees Learn, a new campaign calling on the government to invest the funds needed to ensure that refugees are given quick access to quality English classes and ensure a proper English language strategy for England is put in place, like those in Scotland and Wales.
In theory, refugees in England are eligible for fully funded English classes. However, as our report clearly demonstrates, government cuts mean refugees in England are facing barriers to accessing quality English lessons; including shortages of provision, long waiting lists and being assigned to the wrong class because of a lack of available places. The problem is particularly acute for women. Meanwhile bus fares to get to college are unaffordable; meaning that in some instances refugees are forced to pull out of classes.
For refugees, learning English is vital because it enables them to achieve tasks that the rest of us might take for granted; from paying bills and explaining health problems to their doctor to chatting to their neighbours and communicating with their children's teachers. Moreover, our research shows that refugees want to learn with all of those interviewed saying that they want to learn English because they want to live independently and self-sufficiently.
It's in all our interests for refugees to be able to integrate and to contribute to Britain. The cost of providing English classes for two years is effectively reimbursed through taxation in just eight months if a refugee gets a job at the national average wage as a result of learning English. The public support this. A recent poll - conducted by BritainThinks for Refugee Action - demonstrated that nearly three quarters of the British public think refugees learning English is beneficial to Britain; enabling them to better integrate, work, make a living and pay taxes.
Being able to speak English is the first step towards integration for refugees. Those that we work with often explain that not being able to access English language classes leaves them feeling isolated, depressed and frustrated. Many try to learn through other routes, whether by watching English programmes on television or on YouTube and of course there are many volunteer-led community groups doing excellent work in supporting refugees to learn the language. Only last week I met a former train driver in Bradford, who wants to put his retirement to good use by teaching English to refugees. Such efforts are hugely commendable and a brilliant supplement to accredited ESOL provision but it cannot be a replacement for them.
The government must act now to ensure that those refugees that arrive here, having fled unimaginable horrors, are given the English classes they need to start rebuilding their lives and integrate within our communities.
*Mahmoud shared his story with Refugee Action on condition of anonymity
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