'I'm Telling You ... the Language Barrier Is the Most, the Biggest Challenge': Barriers to Education among Karen Refugee Women in Australia

Article excerpt

Introduction

Post-immigration language proficiency 'is a prerequisite for economic, political, social and cultural integration' (Hou & Beiser, 2006, p. 155; van Tubergen & Kalmijn, 2009). Worldwide literacy rates favour men and gender-disparate literacy rates are marked in developing countries (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2002). Although research indicates women's strength in verbal cognition (de Frias, Nillsson & Herlitz, 2006), immigrant men on average achieve greater language proficiency than their female counterparts. Women are disadvantaged by pre-immigration education as well as post-immigration socio-economic factors, including unequal opportunities for social, vocational and educational participation (Hou & Beiser, 2006). Refugee pre- and post-immigration language proficiency is thus an important gendered issue shaping the well-being of refugee women and their communities. This article provides an insight into some aspects of this learner group's experiences with refugee adult English language education in Australia. Data are drawn from group and individual interviews with Karen refugee women from Burma, interviews with key informants and ethnographic observation collected for a larger study on the well-being of Karen refugee women in Australia. (The Burmese military junta changed the official name of the country to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. In this paper we have adopted the position of the Australian Government, which does not recognise this name change, and continue to use Burma-Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2010.)

Although there are features of the refugee experience common to different resettlement populations, the experiences and effects of forced emigration also vary greatly 'in different political, socio-economic, and cultural contexts, and according to factors such as gender, class, age, race, or ethnicity' (Hatoss & Huijser, 2010, p. 148). Complex combinations of these variables across the phases of pre-displacement, displacement and resettlement lead to differing outcomes and challenges. Research suggests that prolonged flight and protracted confinement in refugee camps lead to lowered psychological well-being (Porter & Haslam, 2001). Traumatic stress is predictive of psychiatric distress amongst some refugee populations (Jaranson et al., 2004) but the presence of psychiatric symptoms in refugee populations does not necessarily correlate with impaired ability to perform daily tasks (Karunakara et al., 2004). Current literature calls attention to the interactional effects of traumatic war experiences with daily post-immigration stressors such as poverty and social isolation (Miller & Rasmussen, 2010). Gendered factors also shape the experience and effects of forced emigration, disadvantaging women, who are at high risk of gender-based violence, exploitation and discrimination during all phases of the refugee journey (Hatoss & Huijser, 2010; Pittaway & Bartolomei, 2001; Ryan, Doonley & Benson, 2008).

Background

Australia remains among the world's top three refugee resettlement countries as determined by the number of places available for refugees resettled through the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Between 1993 and 2009 the top three refugee resettlement countries were the United States of America (1,170,424), Australia (187,561) and Canada (186,362) (Refugee Council of Australia, 2010). Australia offered 13,770 humanitarian visas during 2009-10, of which 13.4% were Women at Risk visas. Between 2006 and 2010, refugees from Burma comprised the largest recipients of Australian refugee visas (Refugee Council of Australia, 2011). Women from Burma were the largest recipients of the 806 Woman at Risk visas in 2009-10 and in previous years had been second largest (next to Afghanistan). Many of these women have spent years and sometimes decades in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border where shelter, sanitation, health care and education services are rudimentary. …

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