Teachers defy government, take a stand for refugees

Supporters of the teachers for refugees gathered outside the Department of Education in Sydney on December 12. Photo: Pip Hinman
Monday, December 12, 2016

This week, brave teachers from across the country will bring a message of hope to their class rooms. They will declare that they support refugees — and especially those on Manus Island and Nauru.

The simple act of wearing a T-shirt with the words — “Teachers for refugees” on the front and “Close the camps, Bring them here” on the back — is enough to reinforce to thousands of students that there is an alternative to cruelty.

This is the reason for the extreme government reaction, helped along by conservative shock jocks. They want to threaten teachers not to take this simple act today and this week, and to get more involved in the movement against their curel policy. It’s also aimed at frightening parents.

As Teachers for Refugees says: “In the classroom, in the staffroom and on the streets, teachers can play a powerful role in the campaign for justice for asylum seekers and refugees.” Wearing a T-shirt is just one part of this.

Helen*, who teaches students in Sydney’s south west,  told Green Left Weekly that she would be participating in the peaceful action and was proud to do so.

“The federal government’s treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres is inhumane and violates international law.

“Several arms of the United Nations, as well as global human rights organisations, have repeatedly condemned Australia’s offshore regime as dysfunctional and cruel.

“Leaked incident reports have shown widespread and systemic abuse of men, women and children. Teachers have a professional obligation to speak out against these abuses.

“I will be wearing my “Teachers for Refugees” T shirt to demand that the government close the camps and bring the refugees here.

“A policy that promotes children to self-harm and even attempt suicide has no place in a civilised society.

“Detained children, whether in offshore detention centres or immigration detention on the mainland, risk lifelong physical and mental harm.

“Basic humanity demands that teachers take a moral stand against this sadistic policy of punishing people for exercising their right to seek asylum in this country.”

Mark Goudkamp, one of the founders of Teachers for Refugees and an activist in the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition, told Green Left Weekly that he was prepared for some back lash, but not to this extent.

“We’ve had the forces of reaction lined up against us: the shock jocks, the Murdoch press, and the trio of federal bullies on the form of Malcolm Turnbull, Simon Birmingham and Peter Dutton.

“They, in turn, have leaned on the state education ministers who’ve leaned on our principals to heavy us.

However, the right’s reaction seems to have had the opposite effect. Lots more teachers have got involved and orders for T-shirts are going through the roof.

“We won’t be intimidated”, Goudkamp said. “The level of community support has been overwhelming.”

Just like the health professionals at Lady Cilento Hospital who refused to let several children by taken away by Border Force authorities earlier this year, teachers on Nauru and Manus have spoken out against the incarceration of their charges.

“It is highly appropriate for teachers and educators to speak out against systematic child abuse, and the denial of adequate education for kids and their parents on Nauru, and the single men on Manus.

“Just as teachers can and should distribute campaign material outside the gates for greater public school funding, or against NAPLAN, so too we should stand up to say close the camps and bring the refugees here to settle in the community.”

The teachers for refugees groups called a solidarity rally in Melbourne and in Sydney for December 12 and on December 13 they are targetting Malcolm Turnbull's office in Edgecliff. They are demanding that the offshore camps be closed and the refugees be bought to Australia. They also want the billions wasted on offshore camps to instead be spent on education for refugees and for an end to the Border Force Act.

The NSW division of the National Tertairy Education Union, the Australian Education Union —Victoria and the NSW Teachers Federation are supporting the teachers' actions.

The NTEU said on December 12 that it condemned efforts to “ntimidate teachers from being involved in this action”, adding that “Teachers have a right to a political opinion and to state their opposition to offshore detention policies and government abuses of human rights ... The proposition that a teacher is imposing an opinion on a student by wearing a piece of clothing, or that this detracts from their ability to deliver lessons, is ridiculous.”

[*Helen's full name has not been published due to her desire to keep her teaching contract.]

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