Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

Learning English

Learning English

Learning English is important to most people so they can make a new home in Australia. For those who are resettled in Australia from overseas, the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) helps refugees learn English and settle in Australia.

Since the introduction of the Government’s jobactive program, there have been continuing complaints that jobactive providers are interfering with the ability of people to learn English. Teachers of English reported that several the employment service providers were trying to force people into employment too early, compelling them go to job-related appointments instead of English language classes.

The AMEP program was reviewed in 2015 with changes announced in 2016. Many of these changes are welcome, particularly the introduction of a capped program of up to 490 hours of additional tuition for people whose English was still not functional after an initial 510 hours, as well as increased flexibility in delivery of the program. These changes reflected many of the conversations we have had with people from refugee communities, who pointed out that the program should be more flexible, especially for the elderly and those who have not had formal education.

People do have [510] hours of English and still come out not able to understand or able to read. I think one of the biggest challenges is literacy in their first language. I think they are at double or quadruple the disadvantage. I am not sure if there are programs that help that particular niche of people.

– Service provider, Victoria

A longstanding refrain is that childcare is needed to help women with children attend classes to learn English:

We are working with the women in settlement 5 years on. Some of them have never actually managed to get to AMEP and there [is no childcare]. So it is wasted. We are duplicating a service at the moment doing a program called building blocks, which is from a grant from the council of $2,500. Because the women can bring their kids and it is in an informal setting… We are really at basics. 5 years in Australia? What’s happened? There is a serious hole there.

– Service provider, Victoria

People who had recently arrived noted a variety of issues in being able to start learning English. There were numerous instances where people had to wait six months before they could start classes; and classes in some regional areas were not as effective as there were smaller, combined classes and students had very different skill levels. As well, people talked the cost of English languages tests for those wanting to do education after secondary school; and the need to support higher levels of English for people to attempt to go to university.

People seeking asylum, however, did not even have access to AMEP, although a welcome change has been the guarantee of AMEP for those on temporary protection visas. For these people, the inability to learn English has severely affected their ability to get work and to settle:

[M]y English is not good, it’s just a little bit and only reasonable as it is not my first language. Actually I have no opportunities to improve my English here, just friends and neighbours help me to learn a little bit more. I cannot pay for any education. I’m on my bridging visa, this time I think just three months left and since three and a half years ago I came to Australia. I am on a bridging visa sometimes six months and sometimes one year. I also had 10 months without any visa and I have had very bad problems during that time.

– Iranian community member

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