Concerns grow over the way children are deported as armed guards escort a boy taken from class
CHEEKY JULIO Quinones was the life and soul of his primary class. What he lacked in academic prowess, he made up for with his roguish sense of humour.
That made him popular with other pupils at Brunswick Park primary in Camberwell, south London, and endeared him to his teacher.
But 10-year-old Julio's four years at the school came to an abrupt and frightening end. During a numeracy lesson, Home Office immigration officials turned up to deport the Bolivian boy, driving him away in a van with armed guards. Bewildered pupils were left wondering where their friend had gone.
Susannah Bellingham, Julio's teacher, said the Home Office had given her a 45-minute warning of their arrival.
"I had time to talk to Julio quickly, to try to reassure him, and then took him to the head's office," she said. "Two uniformed immigration officials asked me to identify his mother (Sylvia Rojas Vargas), who was in a silver van outside, surrounded by officials with batons. Then they led him away to her.
"I was surprised they could come in giving so little notice. We didn't have time to prepare our goodbyes.
"They may have had their reasons, but we had very little explanation and I'm shocked that this is considered acceptable practice.
"It seems cruel to do that to a child. He is being plucked from his life here, which is really all he has ever known.
"We don't even know where he has gone. It is very sad as he is a very funny child and popular with the other pupils."
The incident has prompted Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the Children's Commissioner, to renew his call for an end to the Home Office practice of seizing the children of failed asylum-seekers from school.
He said: "I believe it is entirely inappropriate that immigration officials are entering schools in order to remove or verify the identity of children.
"Schools are a place of learning and development for children and young people, where they should feel safe and free to achieve their potential."
He added that the practice had a detrimental effect on other children and put teachers, who had to co-operate, in a difficult situation.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said:
"The children of refugees and asylum-seekers are often the backbone of a school. They want to return to theJeducation system, and they want to learn. To be finding some kind of normality, then to be plucked out of schoo* Jlike that is appalling for all concerned."
It is relatively rare for the child of a failed asylum-seeker to be taken during lessons. But Julio is one of many to be rounded up each year. Save the Children said that 2,000 children were detained by the Home Office every year at centres such as the notorious Yarl's Wood, near Bedford.
Arun Kundani, from the Institute of Race Relations, said officials targeted children and families, rather than individuals, to boost deportation figures.
The outrage over Julio's case came as the institute released a report this week accusingJthe UK and other European countries of robbing children of asylum seekers of their basic human rights.
The study, They are Children Too, analysed 150 cases and concluded thatJchildren are being damaged by harsh deportation systems.
A spokesman for the Home Office refused to confirm or deny whether families were deliberately targeted, but said: "We examine with great care each individual case before removal and we will not remove anyone who we believe is at risk on their return."
But pupils are not the only people in schools whose lives can be turned upside down by immigration issues. The NUT said many overseas teachers were being driven back to their home countries because they lacked advice on constantly shifting Home Office rules.
Schools were frequently forced to suspend or sack overseas teachers who failed to jump through hoops correctly in the visa, work permit and training processes.
Kathleen Werrett, a humanities teacher from Zimbabwe, came to Britain four years ago. She had 30 years' experience, but was employed as a special needs teacher on an untrained wage.
Zimbabwe would not provide transcripts of her qualifications, so she has been unable to apply to the Overseas Trained Teacher Programme, which she must start by August, or give up teaching.
"There needs to be more flexibility for people like me," she said. "We do a good job and bring so much experience."
From September, changes to the course will mean that overseas teachers have to complete, rather than start, it within four years of their arrival in England. The course lasts up to a year and there are fears many will run out of time.
Tim Harrison, the NUT London East branch secretary, said they were called on to help around 20 overseas teachers each year.
"If a teacher's status is called into question, the school has no choice but to suspend them," he said.
"We woefully mislead people who we ask to come over here to teach. Instead of a rewarding experience, they have a very unsatisfactory time as there is no proper induction process."