Skip to main content

Female migrants refugees and asylum seekers want to learn English. Too often they cannot

Emily Loud and Olivia Darby, The Wonder Foundation

Ahead of an immigration speech on Thursday, this week the Prime Minister called for an end to “Muslim women’s segregation in UK communities”, and for these women to learn English.

Well, David Cameron, on that last part we agree with you — women living in the UK, especially, asylum seekers and refugees, should be able to learn English. And in our experience as a charity working with The Baytree Centre, an English teaching centre for vulnerable women in Lambeth, they want to learn — after all, women who can’t speak English in the UK often struggle to access basic services, let alone get jobs. But the truth is that classes are too often out of reach for them.

Firstly, this is because of reduced government funding. Many have pointed out the hypocrisy of your statement in light of recent cuts to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses. They’re not wrong — over the last five years, nearly 40% of the government budget for these courses has been cut, resulting in long waiting lists and strains on services provided at colleges and adult education centres. Even where government-funded lessons exist, barriers prevent the most vulnerable women from accessing learning that could increase their independence.

These are greatest for refugees. When they are seeking asylum, they cannot attend classes, receiving government support only if no decision has been made on their claim for longer than six months. Even after this limbo, asylum seekers can only access ‘co‐funding’, meaning they will still be responsible for 50% of the costs. For many, this is an impossible situation — without the language skills to get good quality employment or function within society, and without the right to work, how will they be able to pay for lessons?

Asylum seekers in the UK already face months, sometimes even years, of insecurity. This can dominate their life entirely. A former Baytree student told us: “I couldn’t speak [or] understand anybody…I was scared to go anywhere.”

Even those who have been granted full refugee status face obstacles to accessing funding for language lessons. Some of the most recent funding cuts to English language provision mean that refugees who need language skills to get into work may have nowhere to learn and no resources to support them. Since language can be the gateway to employment, this makes little sense.

When you consider all of this, Prime Minister, you must recognise that it is wrong to pick on Muslim women in this way. Education is meant to empower, not marginalise.

You yourself have admitted there is no causal link between failure to learn English and extremism, but there is evidence that scapegoating has a polarising influence. Language learning is one of the key tools for bringing our society together, and there are many women from a diverse range of faiths and backgrounds who need it. Of course we welcome funding for English lessons, but offering it to a minority after cutting broader provision is not an inclusive or effective approach. This singling-out risks further marginalising people who already feel targeted, and obscures the real needs and challenges faced by women who can’t speak English in the UK — Muslim or otherwise.

We ask you to reconsider this approach along with the damaging cuts to English language courses that have taken place over the past few years. Until then, we’ll doing all we can to help vulnerable women access English language lessons through The Baytree Centre and other places like it. Join us.