For everyone After Nauru, “school had become a safe place”

Dozens of Victorian children and their families have been staging protests outisde the electorate office of Minister Clare O'Neil to demand resolution of their visa status. Photo: AAP/Con Chronis

When Hannah Clarke had a young student arrive in her class from the Nauru detention centre in 2019, it was an experience she was totally unprepared for. “He was extremely traumatised. At first, it was heartbreaking to see him with kids his age,” she says. 

“I’m used to teaching kids to read and write. He had never played with Lego; he had never done a puzzle. It was a big adjustment for him.” 

Hannah says her primary school in the inner-western suburbs of Melbourne provided the student and his family with a lot of support to eventually thrive and become an established part of the school community. 

“The school yard was really daunting for him, we had to get him used to one area of the playground for a week, then get him used to another part of the playground. He had been used to having nowhere to go and nothing to do,” she says. 

“Watching him become part of the community and seeing the other parents take the whole family on board and develop their support system was great. The family was getting over things – healing from the trauma of Nauru.” 

But then, last year, the support system and community safety net they had worked so hard to establish was uprooted when the family’s visa was changed. They lost their supported accommodation and had to move further out west to a place they could afford. 

“He has had to move school and it was quite traumatic for him to have to move again,” Hannah says of her student. “He was doing really well, but the idea of moving school was a real trigger for him. The school had become a safe place.”

Stuck in visa limbo

Across Victoria and Australia, teachers are doing what they can to support asylum seeker and refugee students and their families, many of whom face ongoing visa limbo and the threat of deportation. There are around 100,000 asylum seekers onshore in Australia either waiting for their refugee applications to be processed, or awaiting deportation after their claims for protection were denied. Many are children who were either born in Australia or have lived here for most of their lives.

In February this year, the federal government announced changes that would mean 19,000 temporary protection and safe haven enterprise visa holders would become eligible to apply for a permanent resolution of their visa status. However, only those who entered Australia before the beginning of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013 are eligible.

Maryam (not her real name) is one of those whose claims for asylum have been denied. The Iranian asylum seeker, who was brought from Nauru to a detention centre in Melbourne to give birth to her first daughter, led protests with other parents outside the Oakleigh office of Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil during last year’s Term 3 school holidays.

She now fears longer school breaks and the expectations it places on her to buy gifts and find activities for her kids – things she can rarely afford. Since her family’s bridging visa expired, Maryam’s daughter has also been suffering from anxiety in response to the uncertainty of whether they can stay in Australia.

“Last school holidays, all I did with my daughters was protest,” says Maryam. “It’s too much for my kids. In my house, all we talk about is our visas. What else can we do?”

Medical student Harini Rathnakumar (pictured with her father) has had to give away her studies as she can't afford the international student fees. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“We’re going to be living here, we’re going to be giving back to this country.”

Harini Rathnakumar

Dreams of higher education shattered

It’s not only young children whose education is being negatively affected due to uncertainty around visas and residency. Harini Rathnakumar (pictured left, with her father) is a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker who arrived in Australia at the age of 10 with her father, having to leave her mother and other siblings behind.

“I’ve been here for almost 11 years, and this has become my home. This country has become my own country,” she says.

Harini studied hard throughout VCE and has long held dreams of becoming a doctor. When she graduated with the grades to get into a biomedical degree, she was ecstatic. However, Harini’s excitement soon faded when she discovered her visa status meant she was not considered a domestic student and would have to pay almost $100,000 in international student fees upfront for the three-year degree.

“It initially gave me a heart attack, looking at that amount and not knowing how I would be able to pay for it with no support whatsoever,” she says. “I told my dad that we had to pay those fees and I don’t know what was going on in his head, but he knew that I wanted to study. So somehow, between his work, my work, and my partner chipping in, we managed to make it work. Sometimes we wouldn’t eat proper food because all the money was going to pay for my university fees.”

Then, earlier this year, her dad suffered a workplace injury and had to take time off. Suddenly, her wage from the fast-food chain she worked at wasn’t enough and she fell behind on her university payments. Harini has now had to drop out of her degree and doesn’t know when she will be able to study again.

“The government should give us permanent visas and let us study, so when we do end up achieving our potential, and studying to become whatever we want to become, we’re going to give back to the community, because this is our home. We’re going to be living here, we’re going to be giving back to this country,” she says.

Dozens of Victorian children and their families have been staging protests outisde the electorate office of Minister Clare O'Neil to demand resolution of their visa status. Photo: AAP/Con Chronis

Awaiting promised reforms

Prior to the 2022 election, the Labor Party promised to undo the Coalition government’s “fast-tracked” refugee assessment program, which has led to thousands of asylum seekers having their claims denied. But there has been no movement towards reform.

The AEU has contacted Minister Clare O’Neil’s office to inquire whether the government still planned to abolish the fast-track visa processing system as part of its planned reforms to immigration policy.

Given the central role of public schools in supporting and educating all children, including new arrivals, the AEU will be closely monitoring the outcomes of the federal government’s review and its implications for refugee and asylum seeker children and their families.

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