No English, no good life

25th August 2006 at 01:00
For men held at Dover's Immigration Removal Centre, the future is uncertain. But many are sure of one thing: education is paramount. Wendy Wallace reports

Mahmood came to Britain at the age of 16, after his older brother had disappeared in the Gaza strip, where his family lived. His father said it was too dangerous for him to stay, and managed to get him into Turkey; from there, Mahmood made his way into the UK, hidden in a lorry. He was in Lincolnshire, working in a chicken factory - the supervisor taught him English in quiet moments, he says - when he was arrested as an illegal immigrant and served six months in a young offenders institution.

Now 18, Mahmood languishes in Dover's Immigration Removal Centre, awaiting the verdict of his asylum appeal. For him, as for many here, what makes the days bearable is education. He displays with pride his entry level City and Guilds certificates in adult literacy and numeracy. "I can't just play pool and get nothing," he says. "It is better for me to get education." The removal centre is a grim-looking place. Perched on the top of the famous white cliffs, on the remains of a Napoleonic fort, it houses up to 268 people facing deportation. Mist swirls over the dormitories and winds lash the site even when the sun shines on the port below. Formerly a young offenders institution, it was converted to its current use in 2002.

Such is the hunger here for education that 15 detainees crowd into classrooms equipped for 10 for classes in English, IT and typing. The centre, cramped, but with a relaxed atmosphere, is open for two and a half hour sessions in the mornings, afternoons and again in the evenings; some attend three sessions a day, sitting on the floor when the chairs run out.

Abdul, originally from the Punjab, explains his motivation. "No English,"

he says, "no good life."

The education depends partly, says ESOL teacher Jill Montgomery, "on who we've got". Her register shows a roll call of the world, with students from Russia, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Sudan, the Ukraine. The induction booklet is in 13 languages. Although all detainees are meant to be 18 or over, many are without any official documents and some appear younger. Inmates are all male, mostly under 30, and one-third are convicted prisoners. Often, their criminal status is simply a result of being an illegal immigrant, particularly if they have found a job. Many, like Mahmood, are picked up in immigration raids, serving kebabs or Chinese takeaways, bagging salad or packing vegetables for supermarkets. Others are brought here straight from Dover docks, after discovery by officials; the going rate for being smuggled over in a lorry from Calais is about 250 Euros. The men brim with stories - of being accused of being terrorists, of having no papers, of letters to solicitors that go unanswered.

To provide education in these circumstances is almost uniquely challenging.

Some of the inmates stay just 24 hours, while others remain for months; few have any idea when they are likely to leave. Students have even been taken out of exams for deportation. Jill Montgomery has made her own teaching materials, customising standard texts to tailor "White Cliffs English" to 15 different levels. "You just do as much as you can, while they're here,"

she says. Ruth Mabbutt, 21, enjoys teaching English as a second language here. "They work very hard and they get so excited when they grasp simple conversations." She is careful not to talk about her life outside the removal centre. "I never say 'I'm going home now'. You talk about their lives. Did they watch TV? How was their dinner? Have they had a visitor?"

As well as ESOL and IT, the centre offers art, woodwork and occasional short courses in health and safety or first aid. On a budget of pound;328,000 per year, they provide 7,250 teaching hours, and have a full-time induction worker. All classes are drop-in. Education manager Anne Morahan has worked at the centre since 1998, when it was still for young offenders.

"Teachers have to be flexible," she says. "We need to concentrate on the detainees that are here now. They want education and they really appreciate it."

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) commissions and pays, with a contribution from the DfES, for the education on offer at Dover. The IND now want to move away from the teaching so highly valued by the detainees, and towards non-certificated activities. "There is a need here to have a structured education programme of English and IT," says Mick Maguire, head of regimes. "I don't think they appreciate how popular these ESOL courses are." Anne Morahan - who won a DfES Star award for education management here in 2004 - identifies a need for a two-tier system; activities in detention centres like the one at Heathrow, where most stay only hours; and activities plus formal, accredited education for longer stay centres such as Dover and Haslar, in Gosport.

Benjamin Aninkora, a Ghanaian arrested in London after he approached his MP for help in regularising his status, has lived in Britain for 13 years. In Alan Frank's woodwork class he is making a date clock, decorated with pictures of England, the continent of Africa and the names of his children.

"It helps us to find the time here bearable," he says. "You rediscover yourself and you're able to settle to doing something." Why the picture of Britain, which he is likely to be leaving soon? "Britain is a country I admire. It's tolerant, and quite civilised," says Mr Aninkora.

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