Hundreds of teachers walk off for refugees

Mary Merkenich together with colleagues from Highvale Secondary College at the Teachers for Refugees protest in Melbourne on November 20.

Teachers, education support staff and even some principals walked off government and private schools across Victoria and assembled at the State Library on November 20, in support of refugees currently being detained on Manus Island and Nauru. A similar protest was held in Brisbane that same day.

More than 30 refugee support organisations, including Teachers for Refugees, which organised the protest, had set November 20, Universal Children's Day, as the deadline for the federal government to evacuate refugee children and their families from offshore detention centres to Australia. 

The Walk Off for Refugees occurred despite the state education department sending threatening letters to all principals advising them not to allow staff to participate.

Rally numbers were bolstered by the attendance of members from other unions, including the National Union of Workers; Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation; Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association; Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union; National Tertiary Education Union; Health and Community Services Union; and Independent Education Union.

Members of Surf Coast Rural Australians for Refugees and Labor for Refugees, as well as university students, turned out to show their support for teachers who walked out.

Hannah, a primary school teacher, spoke about the case of a six-year-old child in her class who was traumatised as a result of spending five years on Nauru. She said this is an issue for teachers because government policies are harming children, including their students.

Jenny Lee, a teacher who formerly worked on Nauru, said that one of her former students is a man who is still on Nauru despite his wife and child now living in Australia. It is not uncommon for families to be separated for extended periods, Lee said.

Australian Education Union (AEU) official Justin Mullaly said: “We can't stand by when children and their families are being traumatised.” The AEU Victorian Branch Council unanimously voted last month to endorse the walk off.

Two young Hazara refugees from Afghanistan also spoke. One said that, in school, detention is for people who have done something wrong, but people in detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island have done nothing wrong. They simply sought a safe refuge for themselves or their children. He called for detention centres to be closed.

A Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children representative said there are currently 13 children being held in a detention centre in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, while 17 children are still imprisoned on Nauru, a tiny island the size of Melbourne Airport.

Rally organiser Lucy Honan said that public pressure, and actions such as the teachers' walk off and the campaign by doctors, had already secured a victory, with a number of children and their families having been removed from Nauru and given urgent medical treatment. However, other children and adults still remain in detention centres, she said.

Honan added that, given Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have failed to get all the kids off Nauru by Universal Children's Day, public pressure must continue.

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