Teachers set to walk off the job over Manus and Nauru

SYDNEY (SBS) – Australian teachers are set to walk off the job on Tuesday afternoon to protest over the remaining refugees being held on Manus Island and Nauru.

Backed by several major unions, contingents of teachers from Queensland and Victoria will leave their classrooms to attend rallies, with a solidarity event set to take place in Sydney’s Circular Quay later in the day.

“This is the first time in a long time teachers have taken action like this over a human rights issue,” member of co-organisers Teachers for Refugees Lucy Honan told SBS News.

“No person belongs in that brutal situation just for having sought asylum in Australia.”

Honan said hundreds of teachers were expected to take part in the walkouts, with events planned for 2.30pm at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, and at 4pm in King George Square, Brisbane.

On Tuesday, almost 1000 Facebook users had said they were interested in the Melbourne event, with nearly 200 confirming their attendance.

More than 300 people said they were attending the Sydney support protest, planned for 5pm at Customs House Square.

The events coincide with Universal Children’s Day, and organisers say it is to call attention to the children who remain on Nauru. Many participants will be wearing blue as part of the #BlueforNauru campaign.

According to advocacy groups including Teachers for Refugees and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, there were 17 children still on Nauru as of Monday.

The Australian government has confirmed all asylum seeker children will leave Nauru by the end of the year but won’t be permanently resettled in Australia.

“The Australian government has been harming these children for five years,” Honan said.

“We’re really concerned as teachers because we teach kids that have come from the camps … We see that it’s a policy that’s so destructive. We want it to end.”

She said their voices were relevant to the debate as “teachers are trusted as people who care about children and the wider community”.

Teachers for Refugees recently shared a video of a man named Aziz, a refugee from Sudan who has been on Manus for five years. He voiced his support for those involved in the walkouts.

“The current situation on Manus Island is getting out of control,” he said.

“In the last few weeks, we have had a handful of refugees who have attempted to take their own lives because of their hopelessness and powerlessness. They gave up.

“[The walk off] is an important escalation. Kids are the citizens of the world. Kids are innocent. They deserve a better future and a better life.”

The protests have the support of the Australian Education Union Victoria and the Queensland Teachers’ Union, along with other unions outside the education sector. But Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has previously criticised the planned action.

“What people do in their spare time is their own business, but parents and hardworking taxpayers expect that, when teachers are being paid to teach, they actually teach,” he told News Corp earlier this month.

“Partisan politics should be played outside of school time.”

SBS News contacted the Department of Home Affairs for comment on the walk-off but did not receive a reply.

The government has quietly been flying refugee children held on Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, but insists they will not be allowed to settle in the country permanently.

They will either be returned to Nauru or settled in the US, a standpoint that has attracted criticism from advocacy groups.

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition, one of the co-organisers of the Sydney event, said those on Nauru and Manus Island remain in a “state of despair”.

“We’re very happy to see families and children recently come off Nauru but that goes alongside continuing suicide attempts … [There’s] a complete downward spiralling of mental health.”

Rintoul said the planned action by teachers on Tuesday was significant as it had the backing of several unions.

“This indicates for the first time we’re seeing a shift by a section of the union movement to take this campaign to the government and the Labor Party,” said Rintoul.

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