Seeking Asylum and Learning English


I was employed as an Adult Education teacher at the detention centre on Nauru for over a year. There I saw how gaining independence and empowerment through language education is absolutely critical to people detained in Australia’s immigration processing centres. It is vital that individuals, who have lost their freedom, and experienced trauma, torture and repeated violations of their human rights, are empowered to become literate in English.

This may seem pretty obvious.

But it’s not happening. The educational opportunities for adults in Australia’s detention centres, both offshore and on the mainland, are appalling. All of the teachers on Nauru were diligent and highly qualified, but we were hampered by a combination of irrelevant curricula, on-the-fly pedagogies, and limited resources, which resulted in poor learning opportunities for our students.  We struggled in extreme heat, with limited and broken seating, few teaching resources, and large class sizes. Nevertheless, our students were positive and engaged learners who were committed to learning English. They were aware that classes are a considerable protective factor in their lives and lessons were always well attended, cheerful and productive. This is no longer the case, as detention fatigue has set in, and student attendance is much lower now than it was during my time on island. English lessons now occur in name only on Nauru.

I was shocked by the limited teaching resources we had in the centre. We were forced to use textbooks that were insensitive and sometimes even offensive to our students. Face2Face, a popular line of ESL textbooks created by the University of Cambridge and used in Australia’s detention centre on Nauru for two years, has a task that asks: “When did you last take a trip by boat?” This is inappropriate almost to the point of hilarity in a classroom where the only thing that the students have in common is that they got on a boat, rather than a plane, to seek refuge.

There are currently no English curricula or resources specifically designed for the asylum seeker or refugee learner at all, let alone someone in a detention centre environment. This is a problem. For example, ESL textbooks always teach students how to say their address. Such a simple task is, in a detention centre, utterly inappropriate, and must be taught in a sensitive, future-focused way. The same is true when talking about current employment, mobile phone numbers, or holiday trips. People seeking asylum and living in detention need to know other types of English, to be used when filling in official forms and meeting with lawyers, immigration officials, doctors, and social workers.

The unique educational issues that face the students and teachers who are operating under these conditions have not been explored by academics, in spite of the huge number of people living in detention centres around the world. Research is urgently needed to develop programs, policies, strategies, and resources that meet the humanitarian and educational requirements of people living in detention. English language and other practical skills are vital to the asylum seeker student living in Western countries, and using the extended period of time people remain in detention to develop these skills makes practical and ethical sense.

I am writing a PhD proposal that will examine the educational experiences of adult refugees and people seeking asylum in order to develop recommendations for an English language curriculum framework. This project will aim to ensure that students in detention are receiving effective and culturally and contextually sensitive literacy education.

After what I saw on Nauru, I believe that it’s the least I can do.

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