It should come as no surprise to learn that loneliness is one of the biggest challenges faced by refugees. These are people who have been forced to abandon their lives, often without all their family members, to start anew in a foreign country. Many of them do not know how to speak English, which leaves them feeling isolated – and makes it more difficult to get a job, find a place to live, and engage with the people around them. And, without a strong support network around them, an overwhelming number of refugees have no one person to turn to in times of trouble.
Now, at last, a new spotlight campaign aims to highlight and help refugees deal with their feelings of loneliness.
In a recent report published by Refugee Action, entitled Safe But Alone: The Role of English Language In Allowing Refugees to Overcome Loneliness, found that the “inability to speak English is one of the single most important causes of such feelings of isolation and loneliness”.
A poll of 71 providers of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) found 63% did not feel that the quantity of ESOL provision they offer is sufficient for most people’s needs. Furthermore, 45% of providers with waiting lists said that learners can wait an average of six months or more for classes. One provider revealed that their waiting list had 800 people on it, adding that “many could expect to wait up to two years before they started classes”.
So what can be done to improve this devastating situation?
Well, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and Refugee Action (a member of the commission) have come together to highlight the issue and raise awareness by dedicating the month of October in urging the government to provide a minimum of eight hours per week of ESOL lessons to all refugees in the UK. Syrian refugees already receive this, but due to a lack of government funding it hasn’t been extended to everyone.
“Leaving refugees isolated and unable to start learning English is a huge barrier to integration,” said Stephen Hale, chief executive of Refugee Action.
“A shared language prevents communities becoming alienated, and enables friendships and understanding to develop between people of different cultures. Improving access to English lessons is vital for a less divided Britain.”
“There are some wonderful examples of communities coming together to help refugees and people seeking asylum feel less lonely.
Head of campaigns, Mariam Kemple Hardy, added: “These people have left everything and everyone they know, to come here. Imagine that; of course they’re going to be lonely. For us, it’s a no-brainer to focus on refugee loneliness, and it is so important. Most of the refugees we spoke to said that learning English was everything to them because it would enable them to be a part of society here.
“We know refugees feel extremely unwelcome in the UK and people would be much more likely to engage with them if they spoke English, so it’s vital that they can access lessons.”
Not being able to speak English means that refugees can’t properly integrate within communities and cannot communicate with neighbours.
“Befriending projects and welcome groups show Britain at its best, celebrating our similarities rather than our differences to break down barriers to integration,” said Rachel Reeves, co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission of Loneliness.
“But a shared language is vital – we must give refugees the chance to learn English.”