English now comes easier to those in need
All refugees in Northern Ireland are now entitled to free English classes in further education colleges.
The measure, which came into force last month, brings arrangements into line with those already in place for asylum seekers and those granted humanitarian protection under Home Office terms.
The Department for Employment and Learning previously announced this scheme is expected to cost in the region of £20,000 a year – and is likely to be of direct benefit for hundreds of people.
Until this change came into effect, Northern Ireland saw the perverse situation whereby asylum seekers and those here under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme (VPRS) could access free English classes - but lost this entitlement as soon as they got refugee status.
Scope spoke recently with Moira McCombe, from NIACRO’s STEM project, who welcomed the changes. She said the issue of free provision of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) first came to her attention in the early noughties and, while there had been some improvements – amid some backward steps – since then, this latest change was a huge boost.
She said the matter was a separate issue from the one about the nature and amount of immigration NI should accept – which is contentious in some areas – and that these new measures are simply a sensible reflection of the fact that the ability of all individuals living here to speak English is a good thing for everyone.
“To start with, it means people can shop easily, go and get their groceries, go to the doctor without having to rely on an interpreter – which of course brings savings. It’s also to do with self-confidence which is a crucial part – from my point of view – for integration.
“Without being able to communicate in the language of the country you are living in you are never going to be able to be part of the wider community or take part in things that are available. Everything is so much more difficult.
“A lack of English can also be difficult for parents of children, because their children go to school and will become fluent quickly and so they might feel that they are relying too much on their children.”
A wide lobby
Several other groups also recognised the importance of English language skills for people in need of protection; the Law Centre, NICRAS and Bryson Charitable Group all called for English classes for asylum seekers back in 2010, and the pressure has been building since.
The Refugee Asylum Forum made this one of its Five Asks in its SAFER campaign in 2015. The campaign gained backing from Belfast City Council and from many MLAs who cited it during a Northern Ireland Assembly debate. The Equality Commission and OFMDFM also lent their support.
Ahmed Alzian, who has taken up the ESOL service, came to NI in 2013 from his native Sudan. He told Scope: “In my opinion I think learning the English language is very important, it is required to integrate and build a life. People come here with different backgrounds, with different languages and from different cultures and so I think language is key to making any person who comes involved and included in the lifestyle here.”
Ahmed’s English is certainly not bad but he says it is necessary for him to improve so he can fully integrate and also make use of his degree in computer science here in Northern Ireland.
“All people coming from Sudan will have some background in the English language but when they come here to live they need more. A lot of people will have qualifications but can’t start a job because employers and the system here requires them to have perfect English.”
Ms McCombe said she is hopeful the current scheme will continue for some time, as it is a sensible measure that does not require much support.
“I think there are a couple of things in its favour. One is the VPRS [Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme] with the Syrian refugees. Providing free English classes was part of the package and there would have been difficulty there in having a two-tier system [in comparison with asylum seekers, etc] so I would hope that the commitment will remain.
“What I don’t know is how any policy decision in GB would impact on policy decisions here, such as the wider debates about migration and asylum. I would be surprised if it was removed because it’s not going to cost that much and it benefits both individuals and wider society.”
Employment and Learning Minister Dr Stephen Farry seems to agree with all these sentiments, praising both the individual and societal benefits of the scheme at the DEL announcement, and also pointing out its low cost.
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