What it’s like seeking asylum in Australia when you don’t speak English

Malek KhalediRefugees who speak little or no English have told SBS News they struggle with isolation, finding employment and navigating their visa conditions.

Rohingya refugee Ahmed* has spent eight years in detention, and more than two of those detained in Australia. In that time, he says he’s never had a visitor come to see him. After fleeing Myanmar to seek asylum in Australia, Ahmed was detained on Nauru before he was transferred to Villawood in Sydney – and later moved to Melbourne’s Park Hotel.

Ahmed’s limited English skills mean little attention has been brought to his plight as part of a persecuted ethnic Muslim minority. Ahmed hasn’t got a lawyer and before our interview, he’d never spoken to a journalist or media outlet. He has no option of falling back on Google Translate, which doesn’t interpret his language.

“I don’t know how to communicate with the community. I feel very lonely,” he said, speaking through another Rohingya refugee who translated for him. “When the COVID-19 outbreak happened at Park Hotel, I was so worried. I didn’t know anything about what was going to happen.”


 Asylum seekers and refugees protesting their conditions at the Park Hotel in Melbourne.

Asylum seekers and refugees protesting their conditions at the Park Hotel in Melbourne. Source: Supplied by source

Ahmed did not attend school in Myanmar. When he was detained on Nauru, he learned a small amount of English to communicate with local people. He said he’s never been provided with English lessons in detention but has access to an interpreter who he can contact with questions about his case.

While Ahmed is desperate to be granted a bridging visa and released into the community, he’s aware that without a high level of English it may be a struggle to navigate his visa conditions and find employment. “I feel hopeless. No one supports me,” he said. “It’s very difficult, I’m just seeking my justice, my freedom.”

Ahmad Hakim, founder of Refugee Voices, said without strong English skills it’s a challenge for refugees and asylum seekers to find stability and security in Australia. “People are released with very little money, zero English classes and no support finding a job,” Mr Hakim said.

He said refugees and asylum seekers who speak little English are vulnerable to exploitation. “If you don’t have a good level of English, you don’t understand what’s going on around you,” he said. “So they don’t understand their rights and a lot of verbal abuse is also happening against them.”

Since its inception, Refugee Voices has found jobs for 40 refugees and asylum seekers, while providing advice and financial support to many others. For those released into community detention or on bridging visas, study is prohibited. Mr Hakim believes the government should do more to help asylum seekers learn English.

The government announced last year it would pay for more refugees to learn English. But this funding doesn’t cover asylum seekers like Ahmed who are still waiting on the status of their application to settle in Australia. “To function in this community you need to have that scale of English and understanding of the working cultures to have a normal life,” he said.


Malek Khaledi
Malek Khaledi is a community leader and advocates for refugees. He’s pictured standing next to Liberal MP Fiona Martin. Source: Supplied

Malek Khaledi, an Ahwazi refugee from Iran, was transferred to Australia and granted a humanitarian visa in 2013 after spending a few weeks on Christmas Island. But eight years later, he’s unemployed and wrestling with the uncertainty of his future without any promise of Australian residency.

Mr Khaledi is fluent in English and qualified as a gas and oil engineer but he said his visa status is holding him back from finding employment. “I have applied for many jobs, many jobs here in Australia – as a cashier or any job – but when I was going to the interview, they looked at my visa and they reject me,” he said.

“I applied for some oil and gas companies and they said your visa needs to be permanent or a citizenship.” Mr Khaledi said he doesn’t want to be “a burden” and live off government payments. He’d much rather work and contribute to Australia. But he said despite his struggle, his situation is better than those who cannot speak the language.

“It’s terrible what happened to me as a person who can communicate, who can make connections, who can arrive in Australia,” he told SBS News. “But what about those who don’t have any English? “No one was allowed to study, not even basic English. Many people I know don’t know how to write their names.”

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