Enforcing the language barrier

Enforcing the language barrier


Written by: Jon Burnett

Recent cuts to English language classes suggest that the government fears the integration of migrants more than it supports it.

On 18 October the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) announced that it would no longer fund basic ‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’ (ESOL) classes. The essential free classes were massively oversubscribed. Namely, they were used by a wide variety of people – including people seeking asylum, migrants and refugees. Earlier that month, an inquiry by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) had warned that more financial contributions were needed and suggested that more teachers were necessary. As the Niace director pointed out, a ‘lack of fluency in the language condemns many people to poverty’.

The large demands for English language lessons reflected a simple fact that was lost on the New Labour government – that many of those seeking asylum or involved in the immigration process, who needed to improve their language skills, were committed to doing so. Contrary to the claims by a succession of ministers that people were not doing enough to ‘integrate’, the oversubscribed classes suggested the reverse. In certain ways, the desire to develop language skills was not met by a desire to enable people to do so.

It is this apparent inconsistency that has underpinned a quiet stream of criticism responding to the funding cuts. The acting Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, for example, stated that, ‘in light of the current debate around integration… it seems utterly contradictory to cut funding classes’. Though such criticisms are perfectly understandable, they miss the point. Rather than revealing a contradiction in British asylum and ‘integration’ policy, ESOL funding cuts are wholly consistent with a doctrine of ‘managed migration’, asylum policies of deterrence and deportation and increasingly stringent citizenship requirements. Denying people access to English language lessons is entirely consistent with government policy.

The cutting of ESOL funding gives a lie to the assumption that UK ‘integration’ policies are geared toward including equally all those who would fall under their remit. They are not. On the contrary, they are only one part of a larger and more monolithic immigration and asylum process that sets the terms of who is to be accepted into the UK, on what basis and under whose conditions. For a number of years, the UK has pursued a policy of managed migration that aims to cherry-pick workers from other countries that are considered ‘desirable’, whilst reducing the number of entrants seeking refuge. As Arun Kundnani noted a number of years ago ‘figures for the number of people applying for and…being granted asylum have been halved over the last two years. At the same time, the number of people being brought in as workers has increased dramatically.’ And these workers being brought in are increasingly categorised in terms of economic ‘worth’.

The culmination of the approach, put in place this year, was the introduction of a points- based system of managed migration – influenced by Australian immigration policy. Former home secretary Charles Clarke described this as a ‘world class migration system to attract the brightest and the best from across the world, while at the same time being more robust against abuse’. Liz Fekete had earlier put it another way as a system which ‘allows the rich First World to maintain its economic dominance by emptying the poorer worlds of their skilled workforces’.

At around the same time as this points-based migration policy was formalised, the Home Office also introduced a New Asylum Model (NAM),* which explicitly seeks to categorise, from the offset, those who can be deported rapidly. Increases in deportations – described chillingly as ‘performance improvement’ – are continuously assessed against ‘unfounded’ (in Home Office rhetoric) applications for asylum. Accountability of the NAM, in this language, is understood in terms of when the former figure is higher than the latter. For the Home Office it is not too difficult to ensure that these numbers show continuous ‘improvement’. There are seven ‘categories’ of person seeking asylum in the NAM which mark out how quickly and ‘easily’ claimants can be removed. The two ‘segments’ that present ‘high barriers to removal’ are left purposely unexplained.

It is through such measures, although not exclusively, that the foundations for what Sivanandan has called ‘enforced assimilation’ are set. For as policies of coercive assimilation are being put in place, they are equally combined with strategies of exclusion and expulsion. Assimilatory policies attempt to enforce identity and values upon those whose presence is increasingly stigmatised as the ‘enemy within’. That they are coercive policies is evident in the manner in which they are supported by the ramping up of criminal justice powers and sanctions. On the flipside, those whose presence is deemed unnecessary by the dictates of market imperatives, and those whose asylum claims can be quickly and ruthlessly denied, are either deported or denied access. The fact that it is global inequalities which frequently overshadow such movements of people is rarely acknowledged by governments whose neo-liberal policies exacerbate poverty and inequality.

In a climate where ‘integration’ is increasingly a euphemism for enforced – unequal – assimilation, cutting funding for English classes is entirely consistent. Producing a literal barrier, to prevent people from learning the language, provides clear evidence that ‘integration’ is to be more ruthlessly managed in terms of market dictates. As the LSC has made clear, people entering jobs will not receive English language lessons ‘for nothing’, adding that ‘we will also expect employers who have recruited workers from outside the UK to bear the full cost of any necessary English-language training’. What is left silent is that there is no imperative to do so. Neither is the fact that it is ‘lower skilled’ workers, often in temporary, insecure and unprotected work, who are least likely to have employers willing to ‘bear the full cost’ mentioned. Yet this is the point. Government ministers have for a long time fully recognised the benefits of migration. What has not changed is that for many people it is their labour, not their presence, which governments welcome – and then only in limited ways. Witness, for example, the application of quotas for the number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers allowed to enter the country through ‘low skilled schemes’, and only for six months. As ‘real’ integration is prevented, ‘market’ integration is promoted. And for those seeking asylum the message is equally, if not more, stark. In a system that openly prioritises deportation and reducing claims, denying access to basic language provision makes it clear that ‘real’ integration is feared, not encouraged. That this is a racism underpinned by economic forces is beyond doubt.

* Although the NAM was piloted in 2005.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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