Jobcentres sanctioning refugees for learning English, watchdog finds


Families who fled war in Syria are being wrongly sanctioned by jobcentres for attending English-language courses, the chief inspector of borders and immigration has said in a report critical of the Home Office.

David Bolt said recently arrived refugees faced “substantial barriers” to finding work and some had had welfare payments stopped while trying to learn English.

His report to the home secretary also said Home Office policy meant “particularly vulnerable” pregnant women were giving birth in refugee camps instead of in the UK despite being safe to fly.

Bolt said the vulnerable person resettlement scheme (VPRS), which aims to take in 20,000 refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict by 2020, was “essentially effective”. However, he criticised the Home Office’s lack of strategic oversight once refugees arrived in the UK, and accused it of appearing “closed to the idea that there is any room for improvement”.

Inspectors found it was default Home Office policy to “pause” all cases involving pregnancy until the child was born, “even when there was no indication of any risk and the woman was in the ‘fit to fly’ timescale”.

The Home Office said its policy on pregnant women was to avoid arranging accommodation in Britain where there was a risk the person would not travel for any reason, but it would emphasise to caseworkers that there “should not be an automatic assumption that they should not travel”.

The inspection also found jobcentre staff had not been given specific guidance or training on how to deal with refugees resettled under the VPRS, which has so far taken in more than half of the 20,000 target.

The absence of clear guidance meant some refugees had been sanctioned while undertaking English-language tuition rather than seeking work, the report said, and others had been refused applications for personal independence payments or disability living allowance.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “If someone has arranged with their work coach to undertake activity that improves their chances of getting a job, such as English-language lessons, then they wouldn’t be sanctioned for doing this.”

The report said refugees were given only a two-day “cultural orientation” workshop to prepare them for life in Britain, despite waiting an average of nine months between being accepted on to the scheme and moving to the UK.

Inspectors described this as “too little, too late,” especially for those unable to speak a word of English, and said Home Office officials had resisted calls from the International Organisation for Migration to extend the workshops beyond two days.

In its formal response to the inspection, the Home Office said it was pleased that the report had acknowledged positive elements of the scheme and said some of the recommendations were already being implemented.

However, Bolt described the Home Office’s response as disappointing because, he said, it “commits to few if any actions. As such, it appears closed to the idea that there is any room for improvement.”

The report said only 2% of the working-age men and women that had arrived in Britain under the scheme up to spring 2017 had found paid work. It cited the lack of English as the greatest barrier to employment.

Syrian refugees attend an employability workshop at Coventry central library



Syrian refugees attend an employability workshop at Coventry central library. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

‘It’s beautiful here’: Syrians settling in Coventry

In Coventry, about 400 Syrians have arrived under the VPRS since 2014. On a cold, wet morning in March, a group of 20 men, women and children gathered around a table in the city’s central library as an Arabic translator repeated the words of council workers.

The families had arrived at Birmingham airport on a Home Office-chartered flight a fortnight earlier. The adults are among 50 refugees in the city who have signed up to a specialist training and employment programme (Step) run by the charity World Jewish Relief, initially in West Yorkshire, and part-funded by the Home Office. The morning class was akin to their first day at school – but in a strange new language.

Of the 50 refugees enrolled on the Step programme in Coventry, 20 have found work – 19 men and one woman – with employers such as Waitrose, Costco and Parcelforce. Out of the 250 people on Step in Coventry and West Yorkshire, 20% had university-level qualifications and the majority were semi-skilled or low-skilled, said Janice Lopatkin, who runs World Jewish Relief’s UK programmes.

Four out of five people looking for work through Step were men, she added. At the library session, the importance of Syrian women in particular finding work was hammered home to the newly arrived refugees. “It may be a sensitive subject, but the truth is this country is a great opportunity for equality in work,” Mahmood Bismillah, the council’s employment manager, told the group. “Our prime minister is a woman! You can turn the telly on and see women in hijabs on cook shows!”

Of the 20,000 refugees to arrive in Britain by 2020, a maximum of 6,000 will find work, according to Lopatkin. About 40% of the adults will be unable to work for reasons including ill health, lack of skills and the language barrier.

Imad Umar al-Tyar, 52, an Arabic teacher who arrived with her husband and two children in Coventry on 16 March, said her family were desperate to learn English so they could find work and make conversation with their new neighbours.

“We are very happy. It’s very beautiful here,” she said through a translator. “People are always welcoming you. We never felt like we are abroad because there are a lot of Syrians here and a lot of people we can talk Arabic and learn English with.”

Baraa Alsaadi



Baraa Alsaadi. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Baraa Alsaadi, 20, arrived in Coventry with his mother, father and two younger brothers in September 2014, having fled their home in Damascus after the outbreak of the civil war two years earlier. The Alsaadis were the fourth Syrian family to settle in Coventry under the VPRS.

Arriving in Britain was “like a dream” compared with the terrifying daily ritual of “just waiting for death” in his homeland 4,700 miles away, Alsaadi said. With the help of council workers, Alsaadi enrolled at Coventry college to learn English and study maths. In April last year, he started work as an apprentice at Timpson, the locksmiths chain, and within six months he had been promoted from trainee to branch manager.

Behind the counter of a Timpson store on the edge of Coventry, Alsaadi said he felt he was finally giving something back. “If you do someone’s watch or something, that means everything for them. That helps people,” he said.



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