The UK Needs More Than English Lessons to Help Refugees Integrate

Last week's major government report on social integration focused on Muslims, but there are factors keeping asylum seekers separate from the average Brit too.

by Hugh Cunningham
Dec 15 2016, 3:30pm

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

It isn't that easy to be optimistic. After months spent in the Calais "Jungle" refugee camp, Imad Katak—originally from Sudan—has been granted asylum status in the UK. By all accounts, his situation is miles better than it's been for years. Life was terrible before, he says, and he had to make a hellish journey to the north of England after being separated from family and friends. "As we left Sudan and traveled across the Sahel, the bodies of those who died from thirst and the heat were thrown from the truck, left to rot in the sand."

Now, his refugee status is under review, and 28-year-old Imad's been relocated to Preston, in northwest Lancashire, as one of 37,0300 asylum seekers around the UK supported in what's known as "dispersed accommodation." It's the sort of housing situation that may be leading to the segregation outlined and warned against in the recent Casey review on social integration in the UK. And stories like Imad's might do well to shed light on the types of acceptance—or barriers to it—that go beyond the media's usual and constant focus on Muslims. Refugees, too, may struggle to seamlessly fold into the contours of British society.

"We have welcomed families from Syria," says Lancashire County Council leader Jennifer Mein, "with health services, schools, and local community and faith groups to ensure they have the support they need." But some in Imad's Sudanese community—fleeing a conflict that's picked up less media exposure in recent years—say they've experienced otherwise.

The refugee housing—made up of the sort of boxy rooms that look like repurposed student dorms—stands in a relatively isolated community. Over the six months I visit the refugees there, they eat, socialize, and work on their English language skills as a group. Contact with British authorities is minimal, but rent and bills are covered by the state, and a handwritten list of contact numbers for medical and maintenance organizations is pinned to the wall.

There's a chicken-and-egg situation at play: The refugees I speak to want to be a part of English society, but between relative isolation, a language barrier, and low literacy levels, they aren't quite sure how to go about it. That in turn makes them seem aloof, or separate from the rest of society, and so the cycle continues. Take Hamed, Imad's 26-year-old housemate. His asylum status isn't yet confirmed, and failure to comply with restrictions imposed by the Home Office counts as a criminal offense. But he's illiterate and wouldn't have known about all this if Imad hadn't been there to read the documentation sent to him. Imad has also marked down on a calendar the dates when Hamed must make himself known to the authorities. Education, it seems, would be a higher priority than Dame Casey's suggested "integration oaths."

Even then, things are complicated. Imad attends classes on Mondays and Tuesdays at the local college and hopes that "soon my English will be good enough for a job." Sami, also from Sudan, is only 19, so he is eligible for occasional youth activities offered by the Prince's Trust. He's only timetabled a single day's college classes each week. "Some of the guys don't want to be ashamed if they speak wrongly to an English person," Imad says, "so they don't try. Some just want to keep speaking Arabic."

Sami, 19, showing the author footage of the Jebel Marra mountains in Sudan on his laptop

While a college spokesperson says that immigrants are provided with a "platform to learn English to help them integrate into society and the world of work," and Imad and his friends enjoy the time they're allocated for education (all speak highly of their teachers), they're left with lots of dead time. Without the right to work while their documents are being processed, they're left in a state of limbo.

But what about others in the area? Integration isn't a one-way street, and Imad says he and his community have yet to strike up conversation with locals beyond what's required at the cash register in stores. On the street, I speak to a lifelong resident, Jen*, 48, who says she has no desire to get to know her new neighbors. "I don't think they speak English anyway," she says, when I ask why. But 21-year-old college student Zahir, standing with a friend, sounds more positive, saying he wasn't aware refugees were housed nearby, but that "if there were events, then sure, I'd go along to make people feel welcome."

Imad, Hamed, Sami, and the dozens of other refugees in their circle say they still feel like transients. Hope of being able to "find jobs and a real life in London" drives a lot of them, as Imad says, and they express wanting to earn their own money rather than relying on the £36.95 (about $47) a week given to eligible unmarried and/or childless men.

This real desire to start over contradicts Casey's mention of self-enforced ethnic segregation by minorities—the lack of social mobility seems to hold them back from engagement with British society, too. But they say this is still better than their prior experiences. "I don't think Sudan will change in my lifetime," Imad says. "The UK must be my home now." Just for how long still isn't clear.

*Some names have been changed.

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