In David Cameron’s divisive speech yesterday on reducing the ‘discomfort and disjointedness’ immigration has allegedly caused in our communities, we did agree with him on one point: that ‘real integration takes time’. We at the Refugee Council and other community organisations are only too aware of this, and focus much of our energy ensuring our refugee clients settle into and assimilate to UK culture as smoothly as possible.
But Cameron’s reflections in Hampshire on the somewhat romantic ideal of “real communities bound by common experiences forged by friendship and conversation, knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub”, seems a far cry for those who will be denied the chance to learn basic English as the government enforces swingeing cuts to funding for ESOL classes (English for Speakers of Other Languages) from September. Cameron has contradicted himself, by demanding people integrate, while pulling the rug from under their feet.
Last month, as part of the Action for ESOL campaign, we handed in a petition of over 19,000 signatures against cuts to ESOL. From our experience, we know how important it is for refugees and asylum seekers to be able to develop their English, yet thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants will be unable to afford to learn English lessons as a result of these cuts, further isolating many people from mainstream society.
Under the government proposals, asylum seekers will have to pay 50% of their course fees, as well as registration fees, exam fees and childcare expenses themselves. Refugees on low incomes, and those on non-active benefits, including parents, carers, and the elderly for whom ESOL will be a lifeline, will miss out on funding altogether.
Without access to English classes, the feelings of isolation many asylum seekers and refugees face will be exacerbated. As people are forced to rely more on their own families and communities to interpret for them, therefore restricting their access to mainstream services, it will only encourage the segregation of communities David Cameron is so worried about.
In another blow, the government is ending their contracts with refugee charities to carry out integration services across the UK, which currently offer refugees who have recently been given status essential support to find housing and employment. Without any government-funded integration services, this could have serious consequences for our clients, leading to a rise in destitution and poverty. School runs and chats down the pub will be merely a dream for these people, who will have nowhere to turn to for the most basic of help, let alone feel part of their new community.
We are pleased David Cameron noted in his speech today that those fleeing persecution were welcome here. And that the asylum backlog is almost cleared – too many people have been forced to live in limbo for too long, and UKBA must not stop until all these cases are concluded. But Cameron must remember that it is these people who have been given permission to rebuild their lives here, who need the government’s continued support to be able to play their full part in society.
It is important that immigration is talked about, at the least to prevent the extreme right from filling in the gaps. But it is only constructive for David Cameron to talk about integration if he shows he is committed to helping people who are allowed to stay here to integrate, by offering money and support where it is most needed.