With the snap General Election announcement a month ago, demonisation of migrant and refugee communities has become even more vitriolic in tone. It reminded me of the language surrounding the publication of the Casey Review, a report published in December 2016 by Dame Louise Casey on the subject of migrants’ ‘integration’ into British society. Casey’s review found that some women are denied ‘even their basic rights as British residents’, focusing primarily on what she calls ‘misogyny and patriarchy’ in some Muslim communities. These are often real problems, but this myopic focus on the supposed characteristics on Muslim communities obscures the alienating and exclusionary effects of racism, and the failures of existing public policy.
The report’s emphasis on integration, and the supposed self segregation of certain communities, is in keeping with recent wider rhetoric, such as David Cameron’s 2011 accusation that immigrants who are unable to speak English create a ‘kind of discomfort’. However, it does include twelve recommendations to ‘solve’ the integration ‘problem’, including more funding for English language classes. In January 2017, after the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on social integration recommended compulsory enrolment into English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) courses for all migrants arriving in England, Refugee Action showed that the Skills Funding Agency cut ESOL funding by £117 million since 2008. In some parts of the country, waiting lists are three years long.
The Wonder Foundation has conducted extensive research into what they argue are barriers to women accessing resources to learn English. Having spoken to an admittedly low sample of 66 low income migrant women, they contend that ‘care responsibilities, domestic violence and multi-dimensional poverty’ are a number of the challenges that present themselves as barriers to ESOL access. Arguing that migrant women are often ‘hard to reach’, meaning that their needs with regards to resources are often not met, the Foundation advocates for an increase in funding twinned with informal support and provisions for safe spaces to access learning materials.
I spoke to women who did not speak English prior to coming to the UK, to see whether this is a sentiment that they share. Nusieba, who came to England from Libya, believes that whilst she has not faced aggravated barriers to ESOL provisions, her mother has, primarily due to having children. “She attended the classes, I don’t think she was hard to reach. That sounds more like a stereotype to me,” she told me. “I do think that women are expected to take the domestic role – they then may have limited English as there is less emphasis on needing it.”
I asked Nusieba whether she thought there is too much blame placed on migrant communities, and too little attention placed on the hostility of wider society. “I think to an extent it is true, and that ethnic minorities should become part of society, but this is exaggerated by the media. Brexit is a clear example of this – a racial campaign that alienated ethnic minorities and put us at risk of abuse and attack.”
It begs the question, how can white women like Dame Louise Casey uncritically place so much emphasis on integration into the laps of migrant communities, rather than challenging the racist society that has made integration a matter of assimilation at best and danger at worst?
My friend Jamil’s mum Sabia, who came to England from Bangladesh aged 19 and now lives in East London, did not attend ESOL classes and feels that she has primarily learnt English through integration into her local community, especially through her neighbours. However, she believes that the Wonder Foundation’s assessment of some migrant women as hard to reach is fair. “Many migrant women have priorities at home. Location plays a key part as many women won’t be able to travel to access resources especially as so many of our duties are at home, so classes in local community centres or houses could help.”
Sabia echoes Nusieba’s sentiments about the role of the media in continuing to place blame on migrant communities. “I believe we are seeing a change amongst migrant women, with much better integration into society than 30-40 years ago. I think the media has played a big part in perpetuating negative stereotypes, and that’s unfair.”
Ruth Cadbury was a Shadow Housing Minister and the Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth prior to the General Election announcement. The constituency covers the eastern half of the West London borough of Hounslow, where according to the 2011 census, 45% people identify as BAME. There are over 120 languages spoken in Hounslow and only 46% of the population identify English as their first language, with Punjabi, Polish, and Urdu being the three most commonly spoken languages behind English. Ruth has extensive contact with English speakers of other languages in her role as constituency MP and previously as Deputy Leader of Hounslow Council, and believes no women are ‘hard to reach’.
“There’s no such thing as ‘hard to reach’! There’s ‘we haven’t got the resources or the right people to reach’,” Ruth says. “In my experience women who want to learn English seek out whatever opportunities there are – and complain to Councillors and MPs when these are unavailable or out of reach. But if they are in distant centres which are costly to get to, or at times that don’t fit in with the school run, or for people working long hours, then there won’t be the take up.”
“I know women who came to the UK decades ago and still speak very limited English. There were sadly too few incentives to learn, and if they did work, it was in monocultural workplaces, whereas their husbands worked in mixed-cultural and language workplaces and their children went to school.”
Ruth believes it is vital for women to learn to speak English and advocates for the withdrawn ESOL provision funding to be fully reinstated. She also advocates for greater use of technology in learning English, noting that social media in particular could be utilised.
The emphasis on what the Casey review describes as ‘regressive cultural practices’ as a barrier to women learning English fails to understand the myriad economic and social factors that inhibit access to resources. Whilst the women I have interviewed have reported patriarchal social relations due to disproportionate representation in the domestic sphere, it is arguable that the narrative of the ‘hard to reach’ woman is a cover up for failures in public policy initiatives.
The Casey Review advocates reinstating funding for ESOL classes, which would be a step towards equating the available supply and demand. However, this does not answer the aforementioned concerns about location, childcare, and other demands on the time of women who would like to learn English.
And is integration really as desirable for marginalised groups as the Casey Review makes it out to be, when we are consistently bombarded with media imagery and rhetoric that demonises refugees and migrants, Muslims and people from non English speaking backgrounds? Until we tackle the myths that perpetuate hatred in the UK and campaign for politics that truly respect the rights and cultures of all people, it seems a fair assumption that responsibility for anything less than total community cohesion will continue to be placed firmly at the door of migrant and refugee groups.