Some of Britain's highest achieving pupils get a special present for their 18th birthday: they are thrown out of the country. It's traumatic for the asylum seekers, their friends and their teachers. Elaine Williams reports
Teenagers snatched from their homes in the middle of the night, dragged out of classrooms, locked up and deported with no chance to say goodbye to friends... We're used to hearing such nightmarish stories from faraway countries with repressive, abusive governments. Places like Afghanistan under the Taliban. But it's hardly the kind of horror young Britons would expect to encounter in their daily lives, is it?
Leanne Jones and Jade Beaney, sixth-formers at Canterbury high school, Kent, had the usual teenage preoccupations: clothes, boyfriends, going out.
Until November, when their world was shattered. How can it be, they ask, that one day you are sitting and chatting in class with Amin - sweet, conscientious, shy, hard-working Amin, who is in the middle of his studies - and the next day be staring at his empty chair because he has been taken from his home in the early hours of the morning, his bedroom door forced, and locked up behind barbed wire, awaiting deportation to a country he had fled and where he no longer has family? And all because he is over 18?
That wasn't part of the deal of life in the sixth form. It didn't fit with Leanne and Jade's image of the Canterbury they thought they lived in. "One day you're sat in class talking to somebody and the next day they're gone, taken like a criminal, probably forever. We don't treat dogs like that. So why do we treat human beings like that?" asks Jade. Leanne adds: "We knew Amin lived without his family, but we didn't ask too much, and he was shy.
At our age you think you're invincible, that bad things can't happen to you. Because he is our friend we never imagined something like this could happen to him - to us."
Amin Buratee, 19, is an asylum seeker, a young Afghan who had lost his family and fled in fear of his life, pitching up in Canterbury three years ago. Until November, he was living with two other Afghan "unaccompanied minors", Essa Jami, now turned 18 and facing the same fate, and Sher Kadami, 17, who saw his family killed. The three of them, who looked after each other like brothers, cooking, washing, cleaning, studying, had become well integrated at Canterbury high. They were respected and well liked.
Asylum seekers who arrive in the UK as unaccompanied minors are granted compassionate leave to stay until they are 18, when they face removal to their country of origin if it is deemed safe. Amin doesn't believe he will be safe in Kabul. Neither do his friends and neither do his teachers. They believe this studious, impeccably behaved, polite young man faces, at best, a life begging on the streets.
Within a day of Amin's incarceration in the deportation centre at Dover, the entire sixth form and staff at Canterbury high had mobilised. They held vigils outside the cathedral and the deportation centre, they wrote press releases. Leanne and Jade gave interviews, appearing on radio and television, in local and regional newspapers, appealing to their local Conservative MP, Julian Brazier, to intervene. (Mr Brazier has since written to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate asking for the case to be reviewed.) The school had experienced the deportation of one of its pupils just a few months earlier and was determined Amin would not suffer the same fate. "We learned from that experience," says Pauline Marks, sixth form manager. "We didn't anticipate then the sudden, brutal, middle-of-the-night nature of how it's done."
"We are his family" read their placards, revealing the strength of the ties that can develop between schools and asylum seekers. In the end Amin was allowed to return to his home and his school, but only until he finishes his exams in June. Meanwhile, he has no official status and must report to immigration officials in Folkestone every three weeks. He lives on pound;30 a week, although the sixth form raises money to support him.
Mrs Marks has worked long hours at school and home to get him legal support and has joined Community Action for Young Refugees, an organisation set up in Kent to look at ways of supporting pupil asylum seekers. Amin's case has been taken up by the United Nations Council for Refugees and an appeal has been lodged for him to stay for a further three years so he can continue his studies in computer science. The school is also supporting Essa's appeal to stay, as he turned 18 last month and could be sent back at any time. The sixth form has closed ranks around the three boys. "We are all one big family now," says Jade. "We will keep going."
Mrs Marks says that, as an example of citizenship, the pupils' response has been staggering. "We have all put in an enormous amount of time, but we have the time and these boys don't."
Essa, who wants to become a lawyer, is the least shy and tends to speak for the three. "The school has been brilliant," he says. "They have done what they can for us. My concern is for us not to go back to Afghanistan yet, because the situation is not stable and we will face persecution again."
The Conservatives' plan for a quota system has put immigration at the top of the pre-general election agenda. Labour, too, has taken an increasingly tough stance on asylum seekers over the past year; Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, plans to speed up removals. According to the campaigning organisation Bail for Immigration Detainees, Home Office statistics show a six-fold increase in the number of children detained in removal centres in the six months to August 2004 compared with the same period in 2003.
Schools are bearing the brunt of this tougher policy. Young asylum seekers are entitled to an education, and schools have to take them in, but the funding is often inadequate. Nevertheless, such negatives are outweighed by the positives: many asylum seeker children are highly motivated, do well in their studies and become valued members of the school community.
Because asylum children tend to be taken in by schools with spare capacity - usually those lower down the league tables - they are often doubly appreciated for their academic application and tenacity. Indeed, such children are often central to a school's drive for improvement. Sir Robert Dowling, head of George Dixon international school in Birmingham, who sits on the Home Office advisory board on naturalisation and integration, has 1,100 pupils on his roll; 12 per cent of them refugees or asylum seekers.
These students, he says, often account for the top grades. They have played a central role in the development of the school's child-centred ethos, which is rapidly driving up results. In return Sir Robert gives them bus passes and uniforms at a cost to the school of pound;6,000 a year, and food parcels if necessary. They can also use staff showers, and he employs a full-time social worker to co-ordinate agency responsibilities in a school that serves Ladywood, one of Britain's poorest wards.
Staff build up a great deal of information about the child's circumstances and character, but at no point, says Sir Robert, are schools consulted by the Home Office. "These children are just part of an inflexible legal process," says Sir Robert. "The sensible thing would be to let them finish their education. Our country is crying out for skilled workers, and schools are in a good position to make a judgment on that. We have more information than anybody else on these young people; we should be part of the consultation process."
Canterbury high's head, Keith Hargreaves, echoes Sir Robert's sentiments.
"The UK has invested a lot of money in these kids and they are grateful, very pro-UK. Let's not turn them against us. Is it sensible to send them back to a precarious future when they are achieving educationally here? Pupils like Amin want to go back, but only when it's safer."
The Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills agree that relocating asylum families during their children's examination years should be avoided, but this is not taken into account when it comes to deportation. Indeed, the Government can opt out of the UN convention on the rights of the child as it pertains to nationality, immigration and asylum.
Moreover, clause 11 of the Children Act currently going through Parliament, which places a duty on organisations to safeguard the welfare of children, excludes immigration and asylum authorities.
When these children suddenly disappear, because they have been removed from the UK or to another authority, the heartache in schools is enormous. At Mayfield school, in Portsmouth, pupils have been offered counselling as they battle to save Lorin Ibrahim, 15, a Kurdish asylum seeker, from being sent back to Syria, where she believes she faces torture and death. Lorin came to the school a year ago, illiterate in her own language and with no English, but has since been placed on the gifted and talented register, achieving level 5s in her key stage 3 Sats. The Home Office has rejected appeals for Lorin, her mother, Amina, and her 16-year-old sister, Eva, to remain in the UK, so they could be ejected at any time.
Staff have already rescued the family from the Gatwick deportation centre after the girls went on hunger strike and their mother became ill.
Headteacher Derek Trimmer temporarily took them into his home to give them a Portsmouth address for their release. "Lorin is one of mine," he says.
"If you are on a school trip and a child falls off a cliff, you reach out to catch them. For us this case represents a humanitarian, not a political, issue.
"I became head here a year ago to take this school out of serious weaknesses and we have achieved that. It has become a positive place; the school is really motoring and Lorin has been very much part of the process.
She wants to be a doctor, she is very able, she is a carer; she will be an enormous loss to us."
The British National party is active in Portsmouth, where there is much hostility towards asylum seekers and immigrants, but it is some of the older pupils at Mayfield, known for their racist views, who have sought counselling over Lorin. "They see Lorin as one of their own and can't reconcile that with their racism," says Mr Trimmer.
Lorin's parents were both active in Weketi, a Syrian political party campaigning for Kurdish rights. Her father was jailed in 1993. Nothing has been heard of him since and he is feared murdered. Lorin, her mother and siblings escaped the country in the back of a lorry travelling across Turkey.
The emotional strain on staff and students over her incarceration at Gatwick deepened when she wrote in a letter to her form tutor: "These days might be the last days of my life because you do know if they do send us back then the Syrian country will kill us straight away (I can promise you this). Can you say thank you to everyone at Mayfield for me and let the people know who ask that I will never forget them or forget the amazing and wonderful opportunity that God gave me, which was to go to school at least for once in my life."
Mr Trimmer says schools are often expected to go beyond their education remit to support students, "but suddenly we are told, 'here's one that doesn't matter, forget this one'. Lorin should at least finish her education here. We have invested an awful lot of the city's resources in this person and she would give so much back. What is absurd is that business leaders are going over to eastern Europe on the lookout for skilled labour, yet here is a young woman doing very well in our education system and we are throwing that away."
There are many children in Lorin's position. At George Dixon, for example, which offers the international baccalaureate (IB) in the sixth form, the top IB student faces deportation to Algeria with his family. The father is an engineer whom Sir Robert Dowling has helped to support through a master's degree, and the boy also wants to study engineering, a subject severely short of candidates.
Then there is Sam (not his real name) from the Cameroon, who has studied at George Dixon for three years and is taking the IB, hoping for a university place in psychology at Birmingham. Although his family has been granted leave to stay, he has not, and faces removal when he is 18. A saxophonist, heavily involved in school music and many other activities, Sam is respected by staff for his responsible, hard-working attitude. "When you come from a place where there is war, you have to achieve as highly as you can, because you don't want to let your people down," says Sam. "For me to be here is a chance to change what is happening where I am from."
Burnage high school in Manchester is a boys' secondary that draws from the tough areas of Moss Side, Longsight and Levenshulme. It, too, is a school on the rise, having doubled its GCSE pass rate to 42 per cent in four years. Eighty per cent of the school's pupils are from ethnic minorities, and there are 130 refugees and asylum seekers: 12 per cent of the total, and growing. Two members of Manchester's diversity and inclusion team for ethnic minority achievement are permanently stationed in the school.
Burnage's head, Ian Fenn, himself a Muslim and the son of a refugee, says his asylum seekers are at the forefront of school improvement. "Give me a school of asylum seekers any time," he says, "because they value and respect what is on offer."
Ignatius Jabobs is a potential Oxbridge candidate on Burnage's gifted and talented register, a house vice-captain sitting his GCSEs this year whose mother has been refused leave to stay. They are South Africans who have fled gang feuding. The school has written a number of letters to the local Labour MP, Keith Bradley. It also wrote to immigration officials in support of a 14-year-old unaccompanied asylum seeker from Bangladesh, a diligent boy who disappeared during his Year 10 exams. He went on the run after he received a letter summoning him to Manchester airport. According to Home Office papers, the boy was 29, a claim Mr Fenn dismisses as preposterous.
He wrote to the immigration service that for a "14-year-old boy who might, at most, pass for 16", such a suggestion "beggars belief".
With government policy set to toughen further, schools are ever more likely to find themselves in the middle of traumatic appeals and more cases of immigration officials turning up at schools to take children away. The Kent director of social services has written to all schools asking them not to let immigration officials on to school premises without permission from either the school or social services. The Medical Foundation is urging all local authorities to follow the Kent lead.
The upset of children's sudden withdrawal is enormous. At Alma Park primary in Manchester, Czech parents, prompted by officials, came to take their children out of class. Norma Dewson, the school's deputy head, says: "The parents came in the middle of the day saying 'we have to go now, we are leaving the country'. The children were crying, it was so distressing and we were left not knowing what would happen to them."
Mick Waters, chief education officer for Manchester, says children are being used to force asylum families out of the UK. "I believe there are plans to speed up deportation of families by threatening to take children into care. Schools bend over backwards to look after asylum-seeking children, to make families welcome, to make the intention behind Every Child Matters (the duty of care guidelines embodied in the Children Act) a reality. The problem is, when it comes to asylum, every child matters, but, hopefully, to somebody else."
The Amin Buratee Must Stay Campaign can be contacted through the Kent Campaign to Defend Asylum Seekers: email@example.com. Kent CDAS is hosting a conference, Coming of Age:Young Refugees Facing Deportation, at Kent University, Canterbury, on February 26. Details from the email address above. Pauline Marks: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sir Robert Dowling: email@example.com. Community Action for Young Refugees: firstname.lastname@example.org