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Asylum seekers need free English classes

"It helps both refugees and the communities", says chief executive of the Refugee Council 17 December 2008. Asylum seekers should be entitled to free English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and not have to wait until their claims for asylum have been approved. This is the principal aim of A Right to a Voice – a campaign1 being launched in London, on the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, by NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

With the support of many other voluntary organisations, including the Refugee Council, A Right to a Voice will:
• reveal the impact of ESOL policy changes upon asylum seekers as a vulnerable group;
• highlight the injustice and inefficiency of the current policy with regard to access to ESOL provision; and
• seek to change government policy in England regarding access to ESOL.

Alan Tuckett, Director of NIACE, said, “The provision of English language courses to asylum seekers is both humane and just. Being able to speak the language in the country of exile is essential to every asylum seeker. Research shows that immediate access to English allows asylum seekers to interact with their new local neighbourhoods and it contributes to community cohesion. It enables the parent to speak to her child’s teacher, to explain herself to a doctor and to begin to function independently in society without recourse to expensive translation or interpreting resources.”

Mongay fled Congo in 2001 and arrived in the UK not knowing a word of English. Today, he teaches maths and electronics at a London college. He attributes his success to the fact that he started learning English the day after he arrived in England. He said, “If I had to wait six months to learn English, like people have to now, I probably wouldn’t have gone to University and become a teacher. Like so many others I would have felt excluded and my motivation and ability to learn would have dropped. Learning English has helped me to make many friends here and it has helped me to get to where I am today.”

Kaziwa from Kurdistan experienced first-hand the effects of not knowing English and through her volunteer work she sees people struggle every day. She said, “Having to wait six months to learn English is devastating for people. They get depressed because they feel isolated and some of them think they would be better off dead. They don’t have access to important information and one man recently missed his chance to gain refugee status. He couldn’t read the letter so he didn’t know where to go or at what time and there was no one to help him read it.”

Kaiwan, from central Iraq, was just 16 years old when he arrived in England in 2001, having been persecuted and imprisoned in his own country. Unable to speak a single word of English was isolating for Kaiwan. He said, “I was lost, I couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread.” But Kaiwan’s determination in learning English has paid off. He has had several jobs and now works as a lorry driver. He said, “Learning makes a big difference in your life. Without English, I’d be lost.”

Donna Covey, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, said, “Being able to learn English quickly helps both refugees and the communities in which they live. Coming to a strange land, especially in traumatic circumstances, is isolating and terrifying.

Aside from the practical benefits, being able to speak the language is the first and best way to overcome this loneliness, and to become part of a community, who in turn will be better able to understand refugees’ unique situation and see beyond their differences.”

A Right to a Voice will also offer practical support and build on the excellent voluntary work which is already going on all over the country. NIACE will set up small groups to support asylum seekers in their first six months in the country. The groups, initially in London, will meet regularly and be run by volunteers. On offer will be basic ‘first aid English’, an introduction to the local area and information on key contacts; especially other refugee and asylum seeker community organisations.

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