Amid the horrors that Vladimir Putin has visited on Ukraine, one ray of hope has been the concerted effort across Europe to rally support for the Ukrainian people. Certainly, not all these efforts have been effective. Pledged military equipment has failed to materialise. Sanctions on Russian business have excluded favoured VIPs, luxury goods and energy supplies.
But these are not grounds to disparage the efforts of countries like Poland, Hungary Romania and Ireland, which have gone to great lengths to ease entry for Ukrainians fleeing the bloodshed in search of a safer life. And nor should they be a reason to exonerate the inactivity of governments which has been quick to speak out on arms and sanctions, but slow to make good on its pledges, especially taking in a fair share of refugees.
In the UK, this lag could be easily remedied if the government chose to suspend its conditions on Ukrainians’ right of entry, like the bizarre suggestion that they should seek visas under the seasonal workers’ scheme. It could simplify the physical and online bureaucracy that Ukrainians have to navigate before they can enter the UK. In short, it could take steps to make our immigration environment appreciably less hostile.
But even if we were to do this, we would still face the question of how best to help Ukrainian refugees settle once they have arrived. The impressive list of 100,000 volunteers who have signed up to host Ukrainian families is certainly an edifying start. Yet this cannot be left to volunteers alone. And housing is not the only thing Ukrainians will need to start rebuilding their lives.
Ukrainian children will need to go back to school, and students will need to finish university and college courses. Adults will need to find jobs, ideally close to where they live and in professions suited to their skillsets. They will need to open bank accounts so they can get paid, spend, and pay taxes. Families will need to register with GPs to give them access to healthcare.
Building new lives will entail an avalanche of “life admin”. It is hard enough to stay on top of this in our native tongue. It is infinitely harder in a foreign language. Certainly, plenty of Ukrainians have a decent grasp of English, but forcing refugees to get by on a combination of Anglophone cultural penetration and Duolingo is not enough.
The government needs to act on this, and act quickly. One simple measure would be to expand the availability of free English language tuition, at the level appropriate to building on the English skills the majority of refugees already have. Germany made a similar policy of cultural-linguistic “integration courses” a central plank of its effort to absorb refugees from Syria. Well over half a million refugees have taken these courses since 2015 despite delays and interruptions caused by Covid-19.
This tuition should be framed as an English language training entitlement for up to 500 hours of free English classes. Under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, 500 hours is the time you need to go from zero to lower intermediate English skills, or to get from lower intermediate to upper advanced level. Advice and guidance on how to access this should be made available online and in every Jobcentre Plus and Citizens Advice bureau – in Ukrainian.
The government should target this entitlement not just at children but all working-age adults, and align it with existing basic skills provisions, as well as the ESOL for Integration Fund. This would give those who have escaped the war the confidence and the competence to pursue their career aspirations and plans for self-development here in the UK.
In a world where autocrats insist on putting up barriers, there is no more powerful signal that “global Britain” could send than to bring them down. Giving new members of our communities the language skills they need will boost cohesion and wellbeing. The best way to do this is to work with local authorities and language training providers to make sure English language provision is tailored to the needs and priorities of the localities where they settle.
An English language training entitlement is a way for the government to show that it is serious about helping Ukrainian refugees make the UK their new home.