Outcasts from their homelands, asylum-seekers and refugees find themselves unwelcome when they reach these shores. Many look to FE to help them on to the first rung of the ladder, but they are often left on the margins of the system, tangled up in red tape. Neil Merrick reports on how colleges are responding to their plight
Record numbers of overseas students are descending on colleges - anxious to improve their English and gain other qualifications. Some institutions simply cannot cope with the growing demand for English as a Second Language (ESOL) courses and have lengthy waiting lists.
You might think colleges would want to shout about success like this, but when it comes to teaching asylum-seekers and refugees, most prefer to get on with a minimum of publicity.
One tutor admitted he was not too concerned when a local newspaper underestimated the numbers taking ESOL courses at his college because of possible repercussions if the true numbers were to be revealed. But in spite of the negative way in which asylum-seekers are often portrayed by politicians and the media, they seem to have been generally well received by both staff and fellow students.
Deng Yai, policy development adviser for training and employment at the Refugee Council, is more concerned about those failing to get on to further education courses - particularly since most benefits were replaced by vouchers.
Asylum-seekers aged over 25 receive pound;36.54 per week - just pound;10 of which is paid in cash. If they are under 25, they receive pound;28.95. "They can't afford to pay for transport to colleges," he says. Refugees only, and not asylum-seekers, are eligible for childcare support - always assuming that the college has the facilities for it.
Yet there are signs of colleges offering assistance. West Thames College pays transport costs for those in receipt of vouchers. "We can't help every single student but we try to make money available for students in need," says Suki Binning, head of the college's community service.
ESOL courses are paid for by the Further Education Funding Council, so tuition is free. But colleges in London, which have taken asylum- seekers for many years, frequently charge a registration fee of up to pound;20. Outside the capital, where colleges are responding to the relatively new demand for intensive ESOL, fees are often waived, as in the case of Portsmouth College, which enrolled about 200 asylum-seekers last year.
Like many colleges, it noticed an increase in demand last autumn and set up English and information technology courses for asylum-seekers. Those who spoke better English could join classes with UK students, but were not guaranteed the same levels of language support.
This year Portsmouth intends to find out more about the asylum-seekers as individuals in order to achieve better integration. "Intensive ESOL has kept them away from other students," says Philip MacDougall, the language support co-ordinator .
Woolwich College, which runs ESOL classes in community buildings across the London borough, also tries to integrate asylum-seekers. "There is a lot of support from within the student body," says Lesley Daniell, head of widening participation there.
Woolwich taught about 1,600 ESOL students last year and, like most other colleges, has a huge waiting list. Hammersmith and West London College, which has ESOL places for about 600 asylum-seekers, tries to refer others to the adult education service.
Demand for ESOL courses in London and the South-east may fall slightly because of the Government's programme for dispersing asylum seekers to other parts of the country. But John Smith, the division manager for ESOL at Hammersmith and West London, has noticed some asylum- seekers returning to London, even though it means they lose their vouchers.
"We've had students who are sent to places where there are no support services," he says. "Some come back but no longer receive money from the state. They cope by working unsocial hours or sleeping on someone's floor, but they're very tired." says Smith.
Colleges in the Midlands and the North insist on being geared up to take asylum-seekers, but they are frustrated by the time it often takes to sort out the necessary documentation through the Home Office and theother agencies involved.
While it is relatively easy to enrol an asylum-seeker on to an ESOL course, it takes longer to meet FEFC requirements for other programmes, which may involve asking people for evidence of any studies they did before coming to the UK.
Liverpool Community College has a waiting list of 700 for ESOL. The principal, Wally Brown, says it is frustrating when asylum-seekers are deported before they finish courses. "We had a situation where we had exams set for a group of students. But the week before, they were told they had to go," he says.
Chris Lockwood, the director of ESOL at Newcastle College, admits asylum-seekers pose a financial and logistical headache. Those who enrolled in the summer may have left the city by the time courses began.
"People disappear because they lose their appeal for asylum or they may receive exceptional leave to remain and can go and live wherever they want," she explains. "The registration and funding system for colleges simply cannot cope with this sort of turnaround."
WE WANT TO BE INCLUDED, TO BE NORMAL
When Ahmed Ali applied to join an accountancy course at a London college, he was nearly put off the whole idea of further education. "I went along to an interview but I was discouraged from going back into education," recalls Ahmed, who is now taking an intermediate accountancy course at a vocational training centre run by the Refugee Council.
"The first problem at college is your status. They don't look at you as a normal student, but as a separate entity. But many asylum-seekers are afraid to give information," he says.
Ahmed, from Somalia, arrived in Britain 18 months ago. He lives in Essex, but says it is worth making the daily trek across London to the Refugee Council's training and employment section near Clapham Common so he can study alongside fellow asylum-seekers and refugees.
Earlier this year, Ahmed was given exceptional leave to remain in the UK, which means he will not be forced to leave - at least not for the time being. But his fellow student, Bayoh Conteh, has not been so fortunate.
Bayoh, from Sierra Leone, has been in Britain for three years but is still classed as an asylum-seeker. When he enquired about an accountancy course at a university he was told he would need to pay pound;6,000.
The Brixton centre opened in 1983 but moved to Clapham earlier this year. "Here they take you as an asylum-seeker," he says. "Other places want you to pay until a decision has been made on your application."
Over the past 17 years, the Refugee Council has run vocational courses as part of a series of government training schemes. It has a contract to provide adults with work-based learning through FOCUS, central London's training and enterprise council Trainees must be 25 years old and hold a permit allowing them to work in the UK, which means asylum-seekers must have been in the country for at least six months.
The section includes seven training rooms and a prayer room. All tuition is free, and travel and childcare costs are reimbursed. Trainees attend five days a week, from 10am to 5pm, and receive help with English and other training.
"There is a special department which will help you look for a job," says Ahmed, whose nine-month accountancy course ends in March. "Most of us haven't accessed the job market here but they will help us to face the challenge."
Maluko Mohamed, also from Somalia, is taking a business administration course , which includes work experience. She has business qualifications that she gained while working in Yemen, but these are not recognised by British employers. "When I apply for a job they ask me what experience I have of working in the UK," she says.
As well as helping Maluko to improve her job prospects while she waits for her asylum application to be considered, the Brixton centre provides a safe and friendly environment. Nearly half of the 65 teachers are themselves refugees. "People come from different ethnic origins but we can discuss our problems alongside education," she says.
Maluko joined an English course at a west London college shortly after arriving in the UK in September 1999. She then enquired about studying business administration there but found the course times (two evenings a week, 6-9pm) impractical. "I couldn't travel home on the underground alone that late," she says.
As well as running Tec-funded, work-based learning, the Refugee Council offers women-only workshops, funded through the Basic Skills Agency, and ESOL courses paid for by the Further Education Funding Council.
Chris Taylor Ozgen, head of the section, says the council's ESOL courses offer asylum-seekers the opportunity to study more intensively than most of those run by FE colleges. "It is an opportunity to mix solely with refugees and asylum-seekers and to gain solidarity from the fact that other people have been through the same experiences," she says.
Many students progress to courses at colleges or universities, or find employment. The section's NVQ results are more than twice the average for FOCUS Tec. "It comes down to the dedication of refugees who have often given up careers in their own country and want to contribute to society in the UK," she says.
ORDERED TO DISPERSE
More than 5,000 asylum-seekers have been dispersed across the UK as part of government moves to reduce the numbers concentrated in London and the South-east.
Home Office figures show that at the beginning of September, 1,505 were living in the North-west (including 745 in Liverpool) while 1,117 were in Yorkshire and Humberside. Glasgow had a total of 769.
Asylum- seekers are told they must live in the town or city they are sent to and lose their right to vouchers and pound;10 a week in cash if they refuse.
The programme coincides with the Government's National Asylum Support Service (NASS), which will take responsibility for people who apply for asylum after arriving in the UK (so-called "in-country" cases) instead of local authorities.
Two years ago, the Local Government Association attempted to set up a voluntary dispersal initiative, but the response from councils was patchy. Yet in spite of the Government's determination to press ahead with dispersal through the NASS, there have been warnings that its success could be hampered by inadequate local services, including further education.
The Audit Commission's report, 'Another Country', published in June, said more English-language support was needed for asylum-seekers based outside London, as well as employment and training to promote integration for those who may ultimately be allowed to stay in the UK.
"Without effective support, asylum-seekers could be trapped in a cycle of social exclusion and dependency in their new communities, or they may drift back to London," said the report.
Deng Yai, the Refugee Council's policy development adviser for training and employment, is now concerned that some colleges may not be adequately geared up to provide for the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers.
"(Colleges) need to identify their learning needs in terms of the way courses are delivered and raise awareness of the cultural issues involved," he says.
BARRED BECAUSE HER ENGLISH WAS TOO POOR
Diana Stewart has been teaching English as a foreign language for nearly 20 years, but has rarely come across a more dedicated group of students than the asylum-seekers who enrolled at her college last January.
"It's so rewarding," says Ms Stewart, head of ESOL at Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College. "They were grateful, polite, motivated, and would take anything on board."
Brighton set up a discrete elementary English and IT course for asylum-seekers as it realised it was impractical for adults to join its regular daytime classes for 16-19 year olds.
And no marketing was needed because news of the six-month course quickly spread by word of mouth. Many heard about it through a widening participation project run by Brighton Council.
Of the 16 students, aged between 16 and 55, 14 have so far gained certificates through the Open College Network. "Attendance was phenomenal," Ms Stewart adds.
But she and her colleagues also had to be ready to listen to what were often harrowing accounts of students' experiences as well as their struggles to remain in the UK.
"It's essential that whoever works in an ESOL department has the capacity to take these things on board," she says. "There can be conflicts between individuals, but the most important thing is that they gelled together as a group by the end."
Students with particular problems were referred to a counsellor, but sometimes it was simply a case of diffusing situations that arose in class. Lynn Smart, who tutored some of the students, says the group often tried to sort things out between themselves. "Someone would say "no politics" and that would be it," she says.
Last year's course was set up relatively quickly without FEFC funding. Instead, it was subsidised by monies raised from fee-paying international students on ESOL and other courses.
Many students who completed last year's programme have returned for GCSEs or A-levels. With a reasonable grasp of English, it is no longer so hard for them to join the mainstream.
"I have the confidence to speak to English people now, even though they speak so fast," says Golzar Shirvani, who arrived from Iran nine months ago and hopes to take GCSEs in maths and biology.
Places on last year's course were snapped up quickly - partly because members of the same family often want to enrol together. Ms Shirvani attended with her brother while Andisheh Mohamadi, also from Iran, went along with his mother and sister.
Mohamed Hamaywn, a teacher from Afghanistan, only knew a few letters in English when he arrived in 1999, but now hopes to find work. "Whenever I try to find a job, they ask me whether I speak English," he says.
Nahid Nazarz, who worked as a hairdresser in Iran, faces the problem of gaining British qualifications before she can work in this country. When she tried to enrol for a hairdressing course at another Brighton college, she was told her English was not good enough.
Transport is not a problem for these students as most of the group live within walking distance of the college. The students say they were made to feel welcome by the other 16-19 year olds at the college.
"It is difficult to make friends when you come here if you don't know how to speak English," says Daniel Iliskovic, who came from Croatia nearly 18 months ago."Step by step, I've improved my English. Now I play basketball and make lots of friends."