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Snatched from their beds in secret

Article | Published in TES Newspaper on 24 November, 2006 | By: Jean McLeish

The pupils of Drumchapel High have coped for years with friends disappearing overnight. Jean McLeish reports on the campaign of the Glasgow Girls to win greater rights for the children of asylum-seekers.

Children have disappeared from this school. Some are believed to be in hiding. Others have been wakened from their beds, bundled into vans and driven to detention centres before deportation - sleepy, bewildered and frightened children who came to Scotland for sanctuary.

Headteacher Wilson Blakey has been welcoming asylum-seekers' children to Drumchapel High in Glasgow for more than six years. One in 10 of the pupils here is an asylum-seeker, and many live in towering flats at Kingsway Court, four miles away. Some pupils have completed their whole secondary education in Drumchapel.

Mr Blakey and his staff have worked hard to settle these children into school life, helping them learn English and supporting their recovery from the traumas their families have fled. One group of these pupils, known as the Glasgow Girls, has waged a campaign to end dawn raids on the children of failed asylum-seekers.

In the headteacher's office, trophies line a cabinet - prominently placed are the awards made to the Glasgow Girls who have made politicians on both sides of the border sit up and take notice.

"In March 2005, there were four girls making a film with BBC Scotland about what it's like being an asylum-seeker in Glasgow," Mr Blakey recalls, sitting in his office. In the series Tales from the Edge, children are supported by BBC Scotland producer Lindsay Hill and given cameras to film each other and talk about what's happening in their daily lives. Mr Blakey said: "So these four girls were working on a programme of what it's like being friends with each other, getting on with other people and it included school things. And suddenly one of the four, Agnesa, was removed in what is now known as a dawn raid."

Agnesa Murselaj is from a Roma gypsy family that fled war-torn Kosovo six years ago. She was in fourth year and her brother Gentian was in second year, when immigration officers took the family from their home to a detention centre 300 miles away. They were held for three weeks before they were allowed to return to Glasgow.

Mr Blakey says teachers and pupils are devastated by these events. "I knew Agnesa and that was terrible, and Gentian is a lovely boy who, when he returned to the school stopped smiling - simple as that," he says.

Girls like Durr-e Maqnoon, and Saida Vucaj and her brothers Nimat and Elvis, have never come back. "It can be deeply upsetting to lose a child forever - suddenly - because I know how distressing it will be for them and I see how distressing it can be for their friends who have lost them," says Mr Blakey.

In practical terms, it is difficult for the staff to keep track of pupils as they are rarely informed of what is happening.

"Sometimes they stop attending and I find out later on that they have fled," Mr Blakey said. "On one occasion I was told in a phone call that a family had been removed by immigration."

After Agnesa's return to Drumchapel, the Glasgow Girls continued campaigning. Their original film was broadcast last year and won awards from Amnesty International and was highly commended by Scotland's children's commissioner, Kathleen Marshall. Next week, a sequel will be broadcast, highlighting how repeated dawn raids have forced them to fight on.

Five of the seven-strong group have now left school, but they continue to protest at the treatment of asylum-seekers' children and take part in early morning vigils with their neighbours at the Kingsway flats.

In a meeting room at Kingsway Court, four of the girls meet for the first time since leaving school in the summer. They are delighted to see each other and exchange hugs and compliments. "You've had your hair cut," they fuss over Agnesa approvingly.

The girls have learned that immigration minister Liam Byrne will be in Scotland the next day and that there may be some news on the future of dawn raids. Asylum issues are reserved for Westminster, which has prompted furious rows in the Scottish Parliament.

Amal Azzudin, 16, left Somalia more than six years ago with her mother, who was pregnant with her sister. "There was civil war and no government," she says. "There was no protection. All the tribes were fighting because they all wanted to rule. They wanted to be the government."

Now Amal is a refugee and a student keen to pursue her interest in international politics. Emma Clifford, 18, is at Strathclyde university studying journalism as part of her degree course. And Toni-Lee Henderson, 17, is studying a course in professional cookery to pursue her dream of becoming a professional chef. Agnesa plans to study beauty therapy, but her family's future here is still in question.

The other Glasgow Girls are Ewelina Siwak, a Polish Roma gypsy granted leave to remain in Scotland earlier this year, Roza Salih, 17, from Kurdistan, whose asylum case failed and Jennifer McCarron, 17, (see box, below).

Amal describes their campaign to support Agnesa: "We wrote to MPs and MSPs, we went to meetings. I was on the news and radio - Agnesa was in the newspapers. We drew up a petition."

Emma says: "It was then that the whole group came together. It was just as the exams were about to happen, during the prelims."

One concession the girls won was agreement that children would not be deported during exams.

Emma says: "Agnesa was let out of detention. It wasn't due to our campaign apparently - it was because the Home Office made a mistake and, in fact, Kosovo wasn't safe for her to return to."

But Amal says their campaign continued as more and more families from the school were detained.

"We lost a girl called Durr-e Maqnoon who was sent back to Pakistan," she says. "She was doing so well in school and had so many certificates and she was pupil of the year. Then the Vucaj family were sent back to Kosovo."

The girls list more than 10 children they have known who have been "removed" from their homes.

"It was scary. One minute people were there and the next minute they weren't," says Toni-Lee.

"And all the asylum-seekers were in fear that it would be them next," Amal adds.

In September last year, the Glasgow Girls visited the Scottish Parliament for a debate about the treatment of asylum-seekers. Jack McConnell, the First Minister, invited them for a private meeting. The debate prompted him to agree to seek a protocol with the Home Office that would mean Scottish education, social work and health officials would have to be consulted before any child is removed.

There have been angry scenes in the Parliament over the issue, but when dawn raids started again this October, the protocol was still not yet in place. But following Liam Byrne's visit to Scotland, it was announced thata "lead professional" would soon be appointed to take an active part in focusing on the interests of children being removed from the country with their families.

A statement from the Home Office said: "In the last resort, where no option but enforced removal remains, the Scottish Executive and the Home Office have worked closely to ensure the greatest care and consideration, given the inevitably complex circumstances in such cases.

"The Home Office will work openly and collaboratively with Scottish health, education, welfare and police services on how we carry out our operational activity."

In Scotland, the immigration and nationality directorate has set up specialist teams to deal with local asylum cases, working with social workers, schools and the courts. Appeals are also to be speeded up.

Whether this will bring an end to dawn raids and allow the Glasgow Girls to concentrate on their studies remains to be seen. But the girls will be watching.

'Tales from the Edge: Glasgow Girls - The Sequel' will be shown on BBC2, November 29 at 10.15pm

HOW ROZA FLED SADDAM

Roza Salih, a 17-year-old Kurd, and her friend Jennifer McCarron, also 17, are two of the Glasgow Girls who have come back for sixth year at Drumchapel High. Jennifer plans a career working with asylum-seekers.

Roza (pictured below with headteacher Wilson Blakey) has the smile of a confident young woman on the brink of a promising future, but her early years have been full of fear. Roza's grandfather and two uncles were executed by Saddam Hussein's regime. She has been in Scotland for five years: "I was in the north of Iraq. I came here with my mum and my sister.

My dad came a year before us. We left because it was dangerous. There were terrorists coming to my house and asking for my dad.

"He came here first for safety. But they came to the house again and were saying 'Where is your husband?' to my mum. They were trying to find him and they said 'If we come back again and we don't see him, we're going to kill one of your daughters'."

Jennifer became involved in the campaign after their friends, the Vucaj family, were sent back to Kosovo. Roza now talks to the family online:

"They don't even go to school, because if someone catches them on the way they will kill them."

But there doesn't appear to be any formal tracking of what happens to children when they are sent back to their countries. "We have no indication from the Home Office that the families are tracked in terms of their well-being after they've been removed from this country," says Euan Girvan, who teaches English as an additional language and gives support to asylum-seekers at Drumchapel High.

Mr Blakey sums up: "My basic point, both personally and as a headteacher, is that when a child - nothing to do with the parents - has been in Glasgow for, say, over four years and has become a Glaswegian and benefited from their education, why not let them stay? It's not their fault that the process is taking so long."


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