Immigration raids: Schools fight back

April 20, 2005

Sarah Stephen

The callous mistreatment of the children of asylum seekers and immigrants without valid visas by the immigration department (DIMIA) is something not widely known. Yet in early March it became part of wider public discussion after DIMIA officers conducted a raid on Sydney's Stanmore Public School, snatching of two children half an hour before the end of the school day.

Ian Whang, 11, and his six-year-old sister Janie, were removed from their classrooms at the school when DIMIA officers arrived unannounced on March 8. They refused to allow the school principal to contact the children's carer. They took the children to the Villawood detention centre, where the children's Korean mother, Young Lee, was being held after being detained at the Sydney airport on an alleged visa violation.

Janie, who was born in Australia, and Ian, who has grown up here, were taken from the school without a chance to farewell their school friends.

"Three of Ian's best friends from Stanmore Public — Omer Kahraman, Samuel Elnajar and Oliver Hobbs — have visited him in Villawood, bringing presents including a rugby league ball and basketball and a card signed by his year 6 classmates", the March 27 Sun-Herald reported. "They said they were upset he was taken away and wanted him back at school. 'I don't think he should have to go back to Korea', Omer, 11, said. 'He's my really good friend and he never knew his mum didn't have a visa... When I found out what happened I couldn't speak.'"

Sharryn Brownlee, president of the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens' Associations, told the March 17 Sydney Morning Herald that some parents had kept their children away from school because the children "were terrified after their friends had been taken away by strangers".

Soon after the incident, one of the parents approached Fiona Alcock, another parent at the school, about writing a petition that they could gather signatures on. Alcock told Green Left Weekly: "A few of the parents have taken the petitions to work, and we now have a few hundred signatures."

Alcock is outraged at the distress that the incident has caused to students and staff. "One of the children saw another boy sitting on the toilet floor after it happened, sobbing his heart out. Some kids asked their parents why the government took Ian and Janie away, and asked whether the government would take them away too. The staff member who had to go and collect Ian from his classroom has been particularly distressed, and has been to visit him in Villawood."

Ian and Janie Whang aren't the only children who have been detained in Villawood in recent months. John Tognolini, a teacher at Rooty Hill High School, in Sydney's west, recalls how the school was shocked to learn in late March of year nine student Sylvester Aben's imprisonment in Villawood. Aben, who was born in the Philippines, and his mother were locked up before the start of the school year. "We weren't told for seven weeks that he was in detention", Tognolini told GLW. "I was one of his teachers for the new year, but I'd never seen him. He was meant to be in my year nine history class, but I was marking him absent each week."

The principal, Christine Cawsey, and a number of teachers initiated a petition, and collected 1000 signatures.

"The kids are upset about their mate being locked up", Tognolini told GLW. "Some of them took the petition down to the Mount Druitt shopping centre. There was also a statement read out by school captains on Harmony Day on March 21, which focused on the right of young people to go to school."

Tognolini pointed to the injustice of Sylvester's imprisonment: "He's been in Australia for nine years; he went to Mount Druitt primary. He's grown up with lots of kids here. He's got no relationship with the Philippines. He doesn't speak any Filipino languages. His mum is willing to be deported if Sylvester is allowed to stay. She wants to give her kid a chance."

Penny Carosi, the NSW Teachers Federation's multicultural officer, said that children aren't just being hunted down by DIMIA in Sydney. She said it's happening in small towns too. She told GLW the story of an eight-year-old Fijian girl who came to Australia with her mother in the mid-1990s to visit her mother's sister in Warialda, a small town in north-western NSW.

"The girl went to school there for five years until they moved to the nearby town of Inverell, where she started going to McIntyre High School. Eight years after they first arrived, her mother was deported for overstaying her visa, and her daughter stayed on to live independently and complete year 10.

"The deputy principal of the school didn't know the young woman's background and submitted an application for an independent student allowance on her behalf. DIMIA officials came and took her — four days before she was due to sit her school certificate exams — and imprisoned her in Villawood."

Teachers at the school contacted Carosi after seeing the story of DIMIA snatching children from Stanmore on ABC TV's 7.30 Report. "They hadn't known who to turn to." The young woman was told she wouldn't be able to leave until she had paid $1000 for the flight to Fiji. The 2004 acting principal eventually paid for her to be released and she was deported to Fiji.

Sylvester Aben and Ian and Janie Whang have been denied the right to go to the local school, a right that was won for children in Villawood detention centre three years ago.

"It was the Teachers Federation which got together the Principals' Council and the Parents and Citizens' Association and went out to Villawood and held a media conference on April 26, 2002, pleading for the children in detention to be able to go to school", Carosi told GLW. "Ken Boston, the director general of the education department, swung in behind it as well. We were able to put the commonwealth in a position where they had to agree."

That victory three years ago seems to be in the process of being wound back, and may require a renewed campaign.

From Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.
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