The Guardian 23 March, 2005

Children snatched in terror raids

Peter Mac

Children in three Sydney suburbs watched in horror last week as immigration officials, total strangers, entered their schools and forcibly removed several young children, without notice and without asking permission from parents or teachers. The frightened children, one of whom was only six years old, were taken to Villawood Detention Centre.

The schools concerned have set up counselling services for the kids' schoolmates. The NSW Teachers' Federation said it had received dozens of phone calls from parents worried that their children might also be seized while at school.

According to Sharryn Brownlee, President of the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens' Associations, some parents kept their kids at home after the raids, because the children "were terrified after their friends were taken away by strangers". For parents and children alike the impression that school is a safe place has been shattered.

The immigration officials later claimed smugly that the children were "happy and cooperative", even though they were obviously (and understandably) shocked and fearful. The officials allowed teachers and staff to talk to the kids, to prepare them for the trip to the detention centre. But this was about the only consideration shown them. They were not even allowed to say goodbye to their schoolmates. Ian Whang, 11, from Stanmore Public School, commented: "They didn't let me do that. I stayed at that school for seven years now, and ... I miss my friends."

Even the NSW government has expressed its concerns (although rather meekly) over the raids. Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt stated: "We are not happy with what has happened. It is not appropriate that this happens on school premises."

"Kidsnatch" raids are set to replace the old practice of only removing family members outside school hours. The raids are a natural outcome of the Howard government's callous manipulation of immigration issues, for electoral and political advantage.

And the lack of basic decency implicit in the policy is evident in the actions of other arms of the state. This has nowhere been more clearly demonstrated than in the decisions handed down by the High Court last August, which held that failed asylum seekers could be held in custody in Australia indefinitely, i.e. for the rest of their lives.

The gross lack of compassion and contempt for natural justice evident in this judgement was not shared by dissenting judge Michael Kirby. Interviewed on ABC Radio's AM program last Wednesday, Kirby made it clear he still found the judgement disturbing, even though he agreed that all the judges had considered the issues thoroughly and sincerely.

And Kirby is not the only one who is worried about such matters. A number of conservative politicians, such as Liberals Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird and Petro Georgio, and the Nationals' John Forrest, are arguing for a fairer and more humane asylum seeker policy.

As well they might. Any government that is prepared to jail people for years for not arriving with the right pieces of paper when they arrive will surely reap and deserve the condemnation of the world's people.

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