Refugees turn to teachers

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Child asylum-seekers in London are depending on their schools to help fight deportation orders, reports Nadene Ghouri

London teachers are increasingly being drawn into battles to stop refugee pupils being deported.

Staff are lobbying MPs and attending court hearings with their pupils, on top of teaching their normal classes, says the Refugee Council.

Campaigners warn the pressure on teachers to help can only get worse as new "fast track" legislation designed to speed up the asylum process could see pupils facing deportation within weeks of starting school in Britain.

Simon Shaw, a teacher at Rokeby school in the east London borough of Newham, says refugee casework is an "ever-increasing" part of his job. At least 150 of Rokeby's 1,000 pupils have been granted or are claiming asylum.

"It's a responsibility I could do without," said Mr Shaw. "But I'm not going to stand back and watch children disappear back to war zones, or I wouldn't be doing my job properly.

"You can gauge the world's latest trouble spots by our mid-term entry intake. I've just interviewed a pupil from Kosovo, here without his parents, and seeking asylum.

"A few days ago I met a family from Sierra Leone, who were due at the Home Office the next day to make an asylum claim. I spent the afternoon making phone calls. I feel ill-equipped to offer advice, but that's the job I find myself doing."

Simon Lordan, an art teacher at Canons high school in Edgware, was recently instrumental in over-turning a deportation order against two of his pupils.

He said: "It was a long struggle and highly disruptive for everyone. The Home Office rules are a nightmare, and you never know if you are getting anywhere.

"A campaign like that can take you over. I spent all my free time planning the next move. Teaching on top was very difficult."

Often staff don't know a pupil is facing deportation until the last minute. Rokeby lost a pupil during the summer holidays - staff only realised when he didn't show up at the beginning of term.

The school is currently campaigning on behalf of Lali, a 14-year-old boy, fighting an order to return him to Tanzania. At least four similar campaigns are at present running in London schools.

"There aren't many people looking out for refugees," said Richard Williams, the Refugee Council's education officer.

"Without speaking the language or understanding how the system works, there are very few people they can turn to.

"London teachers are now almost used to it, but with more refugees being dispersed out of the capital, schools who have no previous experience of dealing with refugee pupils will find themselves struggling to cope."

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