Why refugee and migrant women aren’t able to learn English & what we can do

WONDER report gives voice to the vulnerable


14th September, LONDON. 

Speaking English is essential for integration, empowerment and economic opportunity in the UK, but today our research reveals that vulnerable refugee women living here face significant barriers to learning the language. Current provision of English education in the UK is not meeting the complex needs of vulnerable female refugees and migrants, leaving them unable to reach their full potential in UK society. 

We set out to give a voice to vulnerable refugee and migrant women who often feel invisible and go unheard by decision-makers. Listening to 66 refugee and migrant women from different continents and cultures, we heard that they shared many of the same barriers to learning English and accessing English classes. We also spoke to community workers and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers to get a broader perspective. 


Key findings

The women we surveyed almost universally wanted to learn English, there were many gender specific barriers that stood in their way. These included high cost and inconvenient location of classes, lack of childcare, absence of beginners’ classes and challenges related to domestic violence and mental ill health. 

Many of those we spoke to also shared their sadness at how not speaking English stopped them from building relationships with native speakers and getting involved with their wider communities. 

“I can’t talk to my neighbour, in seven years I have been in this block of flats but I can’t really talk to my neighbours, can just say hello. When I go to doctor I cannot really explain myself, I went to school but I can’t really understand”, said one interviewee.

The women also recognised that personal relationships – between women and with community workers and teachers – were invaluable, and motivated them to make the effort to attend classes and other activities at community centres. The class venue also mattered, and interviewees shared the importance of places where they could feel safe, meet and make friends, and build confidence. At the other end, teachers and community workers emphasised the importance of mentors and volunteers to help women overcome practical barriers, continue learning and integrate better. 

 Help women in London break the English barrier right now - support our partner project the Baytree Centre >>


Current context

Learning English is of course a vital skill for all refugees and migrants, helping support integration and employment. It is particularly important for refugee women and girls, whose educational experiences in their countries of origin may have been limited, and who may face additional isolation without this skill. However, government funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes has decreased by 40% since 2010, exacerbating the existing barriers that many female refugees and migrants face in accessing education. Recent funding announcements have restricted money to Muslim women and Syrians.  

“It’s great that the Government is allocating funds to ESOL, but we cannot understand why something that is recognised as being important for both vulnerable migrants and society is only being provided to a minority” said Olivia Darby, WONDER Policy Director and report author.

“We spoke to women from a range of backgrounds who want and need to learn English, and told us how much they would like to integrate. Learning English empowers women to make informed choices for themselves and their families, and in the long term it can only improve their lives and enrich communities in which they live.” 


Read the report summary here, or see the full report here

To donate to the Baytree Centre, our London English education partner, click here.

Check out the #LetRefugeesLearn campaign on Twitter, and add your voice

This report was presented at a Parliamentary Reception hosted by WONDER Foundation and Refugee Action, whose recent report you can find here, on the evening of 14th September 2016. 


Help women in London break the English barrier right now. Donate to the Baytree Centre, our partner project: