18: The Legal Age To Be Denied An Education
By Nick OlleJuly 16, 2013
Australia’s border-protection bravado is keeping asylum seekers out of school – and forcing educators to defy government policy.
To reach safety, the boy had to leave his parents behind. He fled the city of Quetta in Pakistan where, as in his native Afghanistan, Hazaras are targeted by the Taliban and other extremist groups. His family had decided to try to send him to a safer place.
Last year, aged 17, he arrived in Australia by boat, which makes him an “irregular maritime arrival” (“IMA” is government-speak for an asylum seeker who arrived by boat). He is currently living in a major Australian city on a bridging visa while he waits for his asylum claim to be processed.
For now, wait is pretty much all he can do.
“When I was in my country I worked so hard,” he tells me. “I like to work ... part of the time work ... to study as well. I like that. Now I am not allowed to work and study.”
He is among a rapidly growing number (Table 27 in link) of would-be students seeking asylum in Australia. Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) policy holds that IMAs on bridging visas lose their right to attend school at the end of the school term during which they turn 18. Social workers and psychiatrists call it “cruel” and “short-sighted” to kick these students out of school when they turn 18. Not only is the policy detrimental to the health of young asylum seekers, their advocates say, it puts schools in a difficult position. The Global Mail understands some Australian schools are quietly defying the policy.
The Afghan teenager, who has asked to remain anonymous, explains that he was not allowed to enrol in school because he would turn 18 during the enrolment period and thus be an adult when the school term began.
His English is patchy, though clearly enunciated, and he apologises frequently for the pauses in his speech and for asking me to repeat questions. The government’s “no advantage” policy, which came into force on August 13, 2012, stipulates that because he arrived after that date he is not allowed to work, but is eligible for a small government allowance to enable him to meet basic needs. The Red Cross pays (with government funding) for him to study English for several hours a week, but otherwise he’s at a loose end.
“I sleep, sometimes I study [alone], sometimes I go to library. I try to spend my time because if I stay at home it gets boring.”
The Global Mail has spoken to several asylum seekers on bridging visas, who were either compelled to leave school or refused admission to schools because of their age. Concerned that speaking publicly might jeopardise decisions on their unresolved immigration status, they have asked that we not publish their names.
Another Hazara asylum seeker tells us that his positive experiences in Australia are all related to education; from the English lessons he received during the month he spent on Christmas Island, and the more than two months he spent in Leonora Alternative Place of Detention in Western Australia, to the “normal” high school he eventually attended in South Australia. This boy initially fled with his family from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where he says his family was again subjected to persecution; “The situation was totally hostile ... because we are Hazara and Shia, and the majority is Sunni. We don’t have any power, cannot go to school freely.” So, his relatives pooled their resources and arranged for him to travel to Indonesia and then on to Australia by boat.
“Christmas Island was good because I’d spent six months in Indonesia and I was really upset,” he says. “But [on Christmas Island] it was good for us because we were minors and there were some schools inside there and we got some [English lessons].”
He began to make real strides with his English at the South Australian high school, but his progress was cut short when he was forced to discontinue his studies at the end of the first term this year, during which he turned 18. He was then required to leave community detention housing, and told that he would receive government assistance only if he moved interstate. Having arrived prior to August 13, 2012, he is entitled to work, but so far he hasn’t found a permanent job. With no indication of when his immigration status might be resolved, he now lives in shared accommodation with other Afghan people and survives on a $360 fortnightly stipend provided by the Red Cross.
In response to questions from The Global Mail, a spokeswoman for the immigration department explained the policy of removing IMAs who are 18 or older, and on bridging visas, from school as follows:
“In line with state and territory government legal requirements and community expectations, DIAC arranges for children of mandatory school age, which is 5 to 17, to have access to education. The Australian community does not expect adults to remain at school; there would be additional costs incurred in allowing adults to remain at school and the community would not expect to bear this burden given their immigration status is unresolved.”
When pushed on how the department measures the attitudes of the Australian community about such issues, the spokeswoman replied: “I don’t have that detail, but obviously [there is] merit behind the decision,” before adding that in “extreme cases” – a status which remains undefined – exceptions could be made.
Migration agent and refugee advocate Libby Hogarth pulls no punches in her assessment of the policy, describing it as “ridiculous” and “cruel”. She says some education facilities are defying the DIAC policy on compassionate grounds.
“I know some [schools] have gone against government instructions and are continuing to let the kids attend school because otherwise they become suicidal and cranky,” she says. “And of course, at that age, if they’re not allowed to go to school and not allowed to work, then they are sitting ducks to get picked up by gangs.”
Hogarth says she is aware of a principal who had received – and ignored – a warning from government. “Whether it was the education department or DIAC themselves, I’m not sure,” she says of the warning.
“It’s all part of this nonsense ‘no advantage’ policy. It’s going to come back and bite them in the bum,” she adds.
Having invariably experienced trauma, IMA students are burdened by significant emotional baggage, according to Professor of Psychiatry at Monash University, Louise Newman, who adds that in many cases, their education has been disrupted as a result of persecution, or the transitory period they’ve spent as asylum seekers. As such, school emerges as an important focal point in their lives. Newman explains: “The school, for a lot of the [asylum seeker] kids in the community, has become really important as a place where they meet others, they make friends and they have a sense of belonging and a sense of the future.
“You often find that these young people are highly motivated to learn and learning is the one thing that they can put their minds to that gives them a sense of hope.”
Professor Newman, who advises the Australian government on the mental-health needs of asylum seekers in detention centres, as well as of those who’ve been released from detention into the community, agrees that the government’s policy of removing older children from school is “short-sighted” and contributes to despair in those affected. And although she’s received no official reports on self-harm or suicide attempts related to this policy, she believes it is happening and goes unreported.
“The majority of these young people are genuine refugees and will stay in our country,” she says. “We want to educate them as best as possible and give them training that they can use for the rest of their lives.
“It is very short-sighted to suddenly say, ‘Well, because you’re 18, you’re out.’ It just contributes to people’s worries about, ‘Well, what is my future?’ and, ‘If I’m not going to have a proper education I don’t have a chance at a career or vocational aspirations.’”
This sentiment is shared by Kim Hebenstreit, principal of Adelaide’s Thebarton Senior College.
“It’s with reluctance that I would say goodbye to anyone that is required to terminate their education when they don’t want to,” Hebenstreit says. “So, absolutely, I think it is really sad that these students can’t continue to learn so that they can improve their skills and knowledge, to better settle in Australia, if they ultimately get permanent residency; or be better equipped with a range of skills when they are repatriated to their homeland.”
Thebarton seems to represent all that’s good about multiculturalism in Australia. A public secondary college, it caters for students from 70 different cultures, and the 1,000-strong student population includes about 500 refugees and 30 “irregular maritime arrivals” on bridging visas.
There’s an emphasis on cultural interaction and understanding, as well as on academic achievement and, in general, everyone gets along – in fact, gets along better than most. Principal Kim Hebenstreit says it’s the most inclusive and harmonious school environment he’s encountered in almost 40 years of teaching. In 2007, Thebarton was recognised by the United Nations as the country’s first UN Global Peace School.
What’s more, Thebarton is an adult re-entry school, where other young people who haven’t completed a high-school education in Australia, for whatever reason, can achieve that qualification. As Hebenstreit explains it, “everybody here is really 16-plus”. But even here, the DIAC policy applies, and for many of these young asylum seekers this comes as a crushing blow.
Hebenstreit says that this year he became aware of the immigration department ruling on community-detention students aged 18 and older. A DIAC spokeswoman confirmed that the policy came into effect on January 1, 2013 – and it applies to these people called “IMAs” regardless of the date on which they arrived.
The principal also acknowledges the negative effect that removing these most vulnerable students from school can have:
“I think we’ve had about 12 [who have had to leave] so far this year,” he says. “There’s no doubt about it, students who are unauthorised maritime arrivals, their whole life experience has been extremely stressful. So certainly being required to leave school – which for these people is seen as a safe place – can in fact add to the stress.”
This Australian government policy is implemented in schools throughout the country, but may be a particularly hard pill to swallow at Thebarton, simply because the school is so suited to the needs of asylum seekers.
But even when IMA students are able to complete their high-school studies, their hopes can still be dashed if they then seek to pursue further education. One 18-year-old Iranian asylum seeker was lucky enough to complete a course at Melbourne’s NMIT, because he turned 18 during the final term. He proved to be an excellent student and, along the way, inspired by caseworkers he’d been assigned, he decided he’d like to study and pursue a career in youth work. As an IMA on a temporary visa he is, of course, ineligible for government assistance.
“I went to ask how much it would cost and how I could study and they said, ‘You have to pay as an international student because you don’t have permanent residency in Australia.’ So, I asked, ‘How much is that going to be?’. They said $35,000. I had an income of $140 per fortnight so I said, ‘I’ll start saving my money now and I’ll see you in 100 years.’ ”