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Providing social spaces for forced migrants: The important role of ESOL

May 14th 2020

Dr Mike Chick, University of South Wales’ Refugee Champion, tells us about the challenges providing ESOL during lockdown and why it is a vital service for forced migrants living in Wales


Before lockdown, a two-hour class of English (ESOL) was held each morning at the Welsh Refugee Council offices in Splott, Cardiff. Approximately 40 to 60 people, the majority recently arrived asylum seekers, attended each week, meaning that each class had between 8 to 15 people in the room. The classes, which have been running since 2015, were originally delivered to help recently arrived forced migrants, many of whom faced up to a 12-month wait before being able to access formal ESOL classes. The classes are a social space for people new to Wales. They provide a sense of structure to many forced migrants’ daily lives and offer a relaxed, informal environment to meet people and make friends. In sum, they were quite possibly more useful emotionally than linguistically. At least, until COVID 19.

The challenge

The WRC is a charity and its ESOL tutors, though almost all are qualified and experienced language teachers, are volunteers. Nevertheless, since the start of April the ESOL classes have continued to be delivered – but now over a Zoom platform. The teachers needed to organise themselves, learn techniques for designing and teaching online language classes and coordinate their efforts. Unlike schools, colleges or universities, they have not had access to the type of institutional support that employed teachers might receive.

Unsurprisingly, the challenge for those people newly arrived in Wales has been far greater. Very few of the learners have access to a laptop or tablet. The majority have only a mobile phone. Most of the learners had no experience of downloading and using apps such as Zoom prior to Lockdown. Most importantly perhaps, the majority of Asylum seekers in Wales have little more than £5 per day on which to survive. This means access to Wi-Fi is extremely limited as almost all the allowance must be spent on food. The social spaces which previously offered access to free Wi-Fi – community centres, cafes etc. have all, of course, been closed. Because of these challenges, attendance at each class has dropped from the 8 to 15 mentioned above, to around 3 to 8 people in each class. This is important, over half the people who used to participate in the classes are no longer accessing the psychological and linguistic support they previously could.


Nevertheless, much has been learnt and the fact that some support continues is better than none. A WhatsApp group was set up initially as a means of informing the participants about class times and distributing passwords for the Zoom class meetings. That group now has approximately 30 members and has been extremely useful. Socially, it has been an effective way for people to maintain daily contact with others who live in the area. Videos, messages and useful links have all been posted by the group’s members. For example, Government messages, in numerous languages, were shared frequently at the start of Lockdown. Educationally, that the exchanges take place in English mean that the members are getting frequent input and exposure to language.

Whereas the six volunteers knew little about one another prior to Lockdown, their cooperation and coordination has resulted in the them forming a close and supportive team. In addition, on hearing about the online provision, experienced teachers in Swansea and Newport have also now launched classes for asylum seekers in those areas – again using Zoom and Welsh Refugee Council contacts to publicise their existence.

The future

With rules on social distancing still being discussed in Government, it seems unlikely that the physical classroom at the Welsh Refugee Council headquarters in Cardiff will reopen in the near future. Therefore, the voluntary online classes will continue to be delivered and will, no doubt, go on evolving as the volunteers and participants learn more about the potential of electronic platforms. However, the experience so far makes it clear that people seeking asylum in Wales must, somehow, be provided with access to the internet. Lockdown is difficult enough for everyone. Being unable to contact friends, family and loved ones must be awful. Being in daily contact with others, being able to focus on education, even for a short time can have tremendous psychological benefits, as one group member reported on the thread “We would be lonely without this group”.

I would urge everyone to support those lobbying for improvements to the conditions faced by people seeking asylum in Wales. For example, by following the work of organisations such as the Refugee Council:

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