By David Roberts

I have worked as a volunteer for the St Vincent de Paul Society in Hastings for 18 years, and have specialised in arranging support for asylum seekers for the last 11.

The overwhelming priority for all, whether still seeking refugee status or already having it, is proficiency in the English language. People I have spoken to, including staff at East Sussex College in Hastings, where English classes are provided free (paid for by the government), tell me that half of the asylum seekers (and refugees) don’t turn up for classes. In my view they should be made compulsory, with classes five days a week, homework every day, regular tests and a proficiency exam at the end of each year.

Once an asylum seeker, or refugee has achieved a required proficiency level they should be free to take a trade qualification, or if already professionally qualified in their own country, they should be allowed to study in order to bring their standard up to UK professional/graduate levels, which normally means studying for GCSE, ‘A’ Level and IELTS.

The period an asylum seeker spends waiting for their case to be heard means they have nothing much to do, so this is an ideal opportunity, both to learn English, and to get a qualification, or upgrade their existing qualification. If they want something extra to do, they can do voluntary work, sport or enter into any one of the many active community projects that are going on in Hastings and St Leonards. 

Whenever I have come across asylum seekers in employment who have not reached a reasonable degree of proficiency in the English language, they are invariably exploited. If someone who cannot speak good English takes a job washing cars, picking fruit, sweeping the streets, doing cleaning jobs etc., not only will they be exploited – which means being paid below the minimum wage, sometimes considerably less – they will be forever trapped in that situation, their aspirations will remain low, they will become depressed, which in turn causes domestic friction. 

This is borne out by my own experiences during numerous visits to Germany. There  asylum seekers are paid more and are allowed to work. But they end up working 10 hours a day for the minimum wage (6 Euros per hour net of tax), which they need to do in order to pay the rent, for food, travel etc. As a result of being trapped on this treadmill they are unable to look for a better job, or upgrade their skills to enhance their long term prospects.

To read about the Lift the Ban campaign in Hastings click here

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