Last week, the government published a green paper for “integration” – the Integrated Communities Strategy – inviting responses until June. While MRN has yet to fully analyse the document, declarations around its release indicate that it will continue, for the most part, to miss the point.
Dame Louise Casey, whose deeply contested “review” of integration in UK cities forms the basis of the government’s new strategy, highlighted a key emphasis in the strategy: pushing migrant communities harder on their English skills. As she put it:
“I don’t care how we’ve got here, I don’t care who can’t speak English, I don’t care what’s going on but what I do know is that everybody of working age and of school age should be able to speak the language. And I think the public in particular would feel some relief. And I would be quite old-school about this and I would set a target that says, ‘By x date we want everybody in the country to be able to speak a common language’.”
Following on from Dame Casey’s declaration, Communities secretary Sajid Javid emphasised that the government’s integration strategy would fund additional English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes.
Yet as Jude Wanga points out in a piece for Huck magazine, these declarations do not address the real barriers to integration in the UK.
First, she notes that the proposed increase in ESOL funding only makes up for previous cuts justified as austerity measures under the Conservative coalition government. Migrant and refugee groups have long requested increased access to ESOL, not just through more classes but also through classes accessible to migrants working unconventional hours, as well as childcare and mental health support for asylum seekers who are often left isolated and destitute. While the government’s new funding announcement is a step in the right direction, “we are only back to where we were eight years ago,” as Wanga puts it.
In addition, the calls on migrants to step up their English skills implies that they are somehow shirking their integration duties, but this has been explicitly denied in a report from last year that establishes that “almost 90% of foreign nationals living in the UK already speak English ‘very well’,” in addition to feeling a sense of belonging to the UK. Indeed, some evidence suggests that the group less likely to “integrate” is… White Britons.
More broadly, the superficial emphasis on language classes and requirements forgets the other barriers that migrants face in the UK. Jude Wanga references a Runnymede Trust report “[suggesting] that as well as funding more ESOL access, structural oppression should be tackled, integration should be promoted and counter-productive policies – that would demonise Muslims, or financially affect women of colour disproportionately – should be repealed.”
How are migrants expected to learn English when government policies leave them destitute, cut support for childcare and mental health, and fail to acknowledge the discrimination that keeps many migrants in poorer housing and employment situations?