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Giving a voice to refugee women: learning from the past

Annabelle Wilkins, PhD student & Wonder volunteer.

Conflict, desperate poverty and persecution have forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to embark on dangerous journeys across Europe. As some of the largest groups of Syrian refugees arrive in the UK, helping refugees and asylum seekers to rebuild their lives in a new place becomes more urgent than ever.

For refugees and asylum seekers, learning a new language is a significant challenge and one that is vital to gaining employment and participating in the community. Despite the need for English language teaching, government funding cuts are leaving refugees being unable to access English language courses, making them even more vulnerable to isolation and unemployment.

My research with Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s and 1980s highlights the importance of language in creating a sense of home and belonging to the community.  Around 40 years ago, over a million people fled conflict and oppression in Vietnam, many of them in small, unsafe boats. The first wave of refugees was triggered by the fall of American-backed governments in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1975 and a second exodus took place when war broke out on the border between Vietnam and China. Once at sea, the refugees’ journeys were fraught with dangers, including over-crowded boats, drowning, dehydration and pirate attacks. Following a 1979 UN Conference convened to address the crisis, hundreds of thousands of refugees were accepted for resettlement by nations around the world. Around 22,000 Vietnamese people were offered resettlement in the UK between 1975 and 1988. 

Vietnamese refugees wait to be rescued from a 35ft fishing boat, 350 miles north-east of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after eight days at sea. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Being re-settled in Britain presented whole new challenges for the Vietnamese refugees. Many of them came from relatively poor, rural areas of Vietnam and did not speak English, leaving them with few options for employment. Those who did have qualifications often found that they were not transferable to the UK employment market. Many refugees found work in London’s clothing factories or on sewing machines in their homes. As Britain’s clothing industry declined people found new ways to make a living, taking an entrepreneurial approach by opening restaurants and nail salons. 

Linh’s story

In 1983, Linh left her home in South Vietnam on a small, unsafe fishing boat. After being rescued at sea, she spent 2 years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong waiting to be re-settled. Eventually, Linh was accepted for re-settlement in the UK. She went to stay with her sister, who was already living in London. Linh arrived speaking no English, making it difficult for her to find her way around the unfamiliar city. She worked in a number of different jobs, including cleaning work and caring for her children, before she started working in nail salons around 10 years ago. Despite living in London for nearly 30 years, Linh lacks confidence in her English language skills. She didn’t have the money to pay for private classes, and has picked up most of what she knows from talking with her customers. Although Linh has worked hard to build a life for her family, access to an ESOL course would have enabled her to find work, to feel confident and to become part of her new community more quickly.

Linh’s story highlights the multiple challenges that are faced by newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers who do not speak English. Everyday activities such as navigating public transport, applying for jobs and visiting the doctor become difficult, sometimes frightening tasks. These issues are particularly important for refugee and migrant women, who are especially vulnerable to unemployment and isolation.

It is crucial that we learn from the experiences of previous generations to ensure that women refugees and asylum seekers arriving today are able to benefit from ESOL education. Having access to ESOL courses enables women to start vocational training, to continue their education or gain employment. It also improves women’s self-confidence, enabling them to contribute to their family’s education and to take part in their community.

The Wonder Foundation's 'Breaking the English Barrier' campaign addresses the lack of access to English language instruction that asylum-seekers and refugees face. Asylum-seekers waiting to be granted legal refugee status already face a minimum six month wait to access funded ESOL courses, and continuous budget cuts to ESOL funding by the government threaten to impact the most vulnerable learners.

We hope to fund two areas of Baytree's work

1) ESOL classes for adult women.

2) The IntoSchool programme for 14-18 year old girls who don't speak English, do not have a school place, often don't know how to get into school and are consequently at risk, with limited support networks and few opportunities. 

How you can get involved

Educate Yourself: You can learn more about the restrictions on access to ESOL courses for asylum-seekers and refugees by reading our fact sheet.

Donate: Help us raise critical funds for our partner organisation, The Baytree Centre, so they can provide ESOL courses for vulnerable female asylum-seekers and refugees in the Lambeth community.

Donate now to support our work