Refugee Education Training Advice Service (RETAS) offers essential support and guidance to refugees, people seeking asylum, and vulnerable migrants in West Yorkshire. The organisation supports the social, cultural, and economic integration of refugees, people seeking asylum, and migrants, as well as improving their wellbeing and reducing destitution. Based in the heart of Harehills, their impact on the communities they serve reaches far and wide. In 2022, a total of 4,800 people seeking asylum were supported in Leeds, and 79% of those were supported by RETAS.
People seeking asylum, refugees, and vulnerable migrants often have an array of intersecting barriers causing digital exclusion, which we know to be inseparable from other disparities in society. They face additional barriers to acquiring digital skills, like having limited English, meaning support needs to be tailored to meet communication preferences and specific needs. In addition, there are issues which have caused them to leave their countries of origin which require expert levels of knowledge, trust, and understanding before they begin to make progress in their online journey.
RETAS offers a range of services alongside digital inclusion, supporting service users’ holistic needs. Services include English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) sessions, wellbeing support through the Welcome to Leeds Project, housing workshops, and other initiatives based on the changing needs of their service users. The support they offer is holistic, ongoing, and adaptable, and those who have been in the country for many years still access their services.
Supporting access to equipment and connectivity
Most people that RETAS works with have limited funds and cannot afford equipment or sustained connectivity. The stress and uncertainty involved with asylum in the UK can be reduced by having access to information found online. As well as access to information, digital access and skills are tools for education, connection to family and friends, understanding their new environment, and improving wellbeing.
In December 2024, Biometric Residence Permit cards will be digitised, and the government plans to digitise the immigration system as much as it can. You can read more about these changes to Biometric Residence Permit cards here. This means it is more important than ever that people seeking asylum, refugees and migrants coming into this country have access to a device and a good internet connection.
Access to the internet is also essential to stay connected with family and friends in people’s home countries to improve wellbeing and support mental health. A survey by the Refugee Council found that 61% of people seeking asylum suffered from a serious mental health issue, and refugees are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the rest of the UK population. A report recently published by the Red Cross, Offline and Isolated, highlights the importance of internet access:
“Without internet at home, my situation would have been much more difficult, and I would have suffered… The internet has made my life better by allowing me to read new things. I can also send emails to my caseworker whenever I need them and call my friends through the internet.”Participant from Jamaica, 56+ age group.
RETAS has an onsite IT suite with access to PCs, and those with a device but limited connectivity can use the building’s wifi. Those with no access to a device at home can borrow a tablet with 4G connectivity from RETAS, or can be referred to Solidaritech, an organisation that repurposes donated and laptops, desktops, tablets, and smartphones, passing them on to asylum seekers and refugees. RETAS is in the process of joining the National Databank and will soon be able to gift sim cards with free 4G data, calls, and texts, to service users experiencing data poverty.
Supporting essential digital skills and confidence
Essential services for those seeking asylum, as well as other vital services such as health, housing, and benefits take a digital first approach, which can be challenging for some refugees, people seeking asylum, and migrants when they need to find comprehensive information about particular issues, and then know how to address them successfully. RETAS provides digital skills support so that more people can independently access these online services.
Essential digital skills courses
RETAS offers an essential digital skills course that contains advice and guidance on common barriers which refugees, people seeking asylum, and migrants are often likely to face when going online, such as:
- The confidence to interact with and use a digital device.
- Managing files and folders to store documents and improve organisation.
- Using the internet safely to avoid scams and understand how to protect your data.
- Using email to contact support services, schools and colleges, and friends and family.
“Before completing the course, I had no digital skills, and needed help to understand how to use a computer, including how to use a keyboard. Now I can create documents and use shortcuts. I would now like to explore working in IT in the future.”Service user, RETAS
One-to-one digital skills support
Alongside courses, RETAS offer one-to-one sessions, technical and non-technical, for specific queries after they speak to service users and identify their particular challenges, needs, and aspirations. Approximately 40 personalised tutorial sessions to support learners were recently delivered over a 12-week period. Learning outcomes from the one-to-one sessions ranged from registering on shopping websites, formatting CVs, and finding information about employment opportunities. Service users also used these sessions to make informed decisions when purchasing digital devices that were right for them.
“I previously relied on my daughter to support me with writing emails and communicating with my other children, but now I am able to do that myself.”Service user, RETAS
For some low confidence learners, who would not have felt able to attend a groups session, the one-to-one sessions have been an opportunity to develop their digital skills in a less intimidating setting. This has resulting in them using their devices or the IT suite more regularly to address challenges or become more independent when dealing with issues. For more confident learners the one-to-one sessions have offered insight into job prospects in the tech sector.
“It has furthered people’s confidence as they practiced their skills in a more relaxed environment where learning was more personable. The sessions helped learners to better understand topics and ask questions.”Digital Skills Tutor, RETAS
Expanding the digital inclusion support available
RETAS recently joined the list of Digital Health Hubs across the city. The organisation has also been awarded a grant from the Leeds Digital Inclusion Fund to continue the vital work they are already doing to upskill people in the community and expand their digital support offer to include topics such as:
- Using NHS digital services.
- Online banking.
- Accessing online welfare and benefits services.
- Finding employment online.
RETAS recognises that providing greater digital access and support amongst service users means that people can become more independent, as well as access services which can improve their wellbeing, help them understand their rights, and provide relevant information and opportunities.