Loneliness is an enormous, harrowing problem for most refugees. They are forced to abandon their lives, often without all their family members, and start anew in a foreign country. Many of them do not know how to speak English, which only exacerbates their isolation and makes it more difficult to get a job, find a place to live, and engage with the people around them. It is vital that refugees are able to access English lessons when they come to the UK – without them, they are stranded and alone. And yet it is extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, for them to do so. New research from not-for-profit organisation Refugee Action shows that English classes are full or inaccessible across the country, with impossibly long waiting lists or concerns that the quality of teaching is not up to standard.
Refugee Action’s poll of 71 providers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) shows that 63% are concerned that the quality of classes is not meeting people’s needs. Forty-five percent of providers, which teach more than 35,000 ESOL learners, said people are waiting for an average of six months or more to start lessons. One said it could take three years to be assigned to a course and another said the wait could be “indefinite”. Women have extra barriers to learning, of course, with 77% of providers unable to provide childcare at all or enough to meet the needs of all those who want to learn.
And so we have a devastating situation in which refugees are desperate to learn English so they can become a part of UK society, but they simply cannot get into classes.
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, along with Refugee Action, has just launched a new campaign that aims to solve this problem and alleviate loneliness among refugees. This month, they will direct their attention and resources to spotlighting the issue, and call on the government to urgently fund better access to English classes for refugees.
Head of campaigns, Mariam Kemple Hardy, said that loneliness among refugees is profoundly common, but preventable. “They’ve left everything and everyone they know, to come here. Imagine that; of course they’re going to be lonely. For us, it’s a no-brainer to focus on refugee loneliness, and it is so important. Most of the refugees we spoke to said that learning English was everything to them because it would enable them to be a part of society here. We know refugees feel extremely unwelcome in the UK and people would be much more likely to engage with them if they spoke English, so it’s vital that they can access lessons.”
Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action, says: “Leaving refugees isolated and unable to start learning English is a huge barrier to integration. A shared language prevents communities becoming alienated, and enables friendships and understanding to develop between people of different cultures. Improving access to English lessons is vital for a less divided Britain.”
So here’s the plan. Refugee Action is imploring the government to provide a minimum of eight hours per week of ESOL lessons to all refugees in Britain. Resettled Syrian refugees already have this entitlement, but they’d like it extended to everyone. It is estimated that this would cost £42 million a year. ESOL funding has been cut by 55% since 2009, and it needs to be urgently reinstated.
There are, as always, ways that we can help. You could hold a “Start a Conversation” event of your own, as suggested by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. There’s a starter pack you can check out here. They suggest hosting a screening of a refugee film, a pot luck dinner to talk about the issues, approaching local businesses or holding an event with refugee speakers. You could leave a welcome message for refugees here. Alternatively, you could volunteer for Refugee Action’s Thrive programme here, or get involved with the organisation Xenia, which is a friendship project helping refugee women learn English.
Or you could do as I am going to do, and befriend a refugee via the rather beautiful organisation Host Nation. They match you up with a refugee so you can take them out for coffee and make them feel just that little bit more connected to someone here. Refugees deserve to feel welcome – they’ve told us how important it is to them to learn English, so we should listen and do all we can to help make that possible.