A growing campaign against the imminent deportation of 18-year-old asylum seeker Yashika Bageerathi saw a lively protest in Parliament Square by her fellow students
Students from Oasis Academy Hadley protested in Parliament Square yesterday, calling for a deportation order for eighteen year old asylum seeker Yashika Bageerathi to be overturned.
A frenetic backing track of drums, tambourines and an array of percussion instruments borrowed from a music classroom underpinned their emphatic chants of “They say deportation - we say education”
A #FightForYashika petition calling for Home Secretary Theresa May to overturn the order has already gathered over 160,000 signatures. Yashika's story – of a family who fled Mauritius to escape an abusive relative in 2012 and now face being shipped back there – has had wide media coverage.
This energetic protest in the heart of Westminster sends out a powerful message.
"The slogan 'Yashika's right is education, not a lonely deportation' really gets to the heart of what our argument is,'' I am told by Brian Christopher, a teacher at the Oasis Academy where Yashika studies. He is impressed with the resolve his students have shown, and their indomitable enthusiasm.
“It really has been a fantastic demo. I've been speaking to people who tell me that they've been to a lot of demonstrations and they've not seen anything with that kind of atmosphere,” he tells me.
“Despite the fact they've been having a few setbacks the kids have been coming out showing their support and solidarity and really impressing members of the public who've been walking past. The atmosphere has been brilliant.”
Brian is appalled by the treatment meted out to Yashika and her family.
“Instead of being treated badly she should have a right to education and to be treated with fairness and a bit of dignity. The students are really keen that that's a key message of the campaign”
We talk about the wider issues thrown up by the campaign:
“We know for a fact that this is happening in other schools. If it hasn't happened in your school yet it's going to happen in the future. I spoke to a teacher just a few days ago who has a nineteen year old student at her school who's going to be deported back to Pakistan. The issue here is that this effects every school and every community."
Immigrants are welcome here
“Our campaign shows that despite all the horrible things that are said about immigrants and asylum seekers in the media and by politicians when people look at the merits of individual cases, actually there's a lot of sympathy and a lot of support for the fact that people have a right to be here, people contribute something to our society. They're loved and they're a part of our community and that should be respected.”
I ask Brian what's next in the #FightForYashika (a hashtag they're hoping will go viral).
“We're putting pressure on Air Mauritius not to put her on the flight. We know that there will be people down at Heathrow who are not going to want this to happen. For us as a campaign all we can do is to keep up the pressure on the Home Office.
“Theresa May has the right to step in, she's done it before and she can do it again, the rules say that she can make the final decision on this. She should step in - let this student do her exams, go to university and be part of our community."
The Save Yashika campaign has put out a call to inundate the Air Mauritius switchboard with phone calls asking them to refuse to put Yashika on her flight. British Airways refused to let her on one of their flights earlier in the week, much to the embarassment of the Home Office.
“Between 12pm until 1pm we're going to light up their switchboards,” Brian tells me.
“We're going to cost them some money and they're going to get some bad publicity uness they take a stand in the way that BA did and say 'you know what, this woman has been treated wrongly. She shouldn't have been treated like this, her human rights shouldn't be abused and she shouldn't be on that flight.'"
A young black woman is leading her fellow students in chants of “We are Yashika's family”, “They say deportation - we say education” and “Who do we want? Yashika - when do we want her? Now!” Her name is Jennifer Dana Taria, she's a student at Oasis academy and a friend of Yashika's.
“I'm trying to spread the word about Yahsika,” she tells me.
I ask her what sort of a message they want to send to the government.
“We're trying to say that the government shouldn't put people into the bracket of just an immigrant. They should look carefully into Yashika's case. Yashika isn't just seeking asylum to stay here, she's seeking asylum to run away from something in Mauritius. They can't just send her back somewhere where she could even face death.”
Yashika's case would appear to be that of a model asylum seeker - a high-performing, community-minded school student and her family sheltering from an abusive relation. The fact that she's being separated from her family and deported back to Mauritius alone is bad enough. That her flight departs on Mother's Day adds insult to injury. I ask Jennifer if she thinks Theresa May's action could backfire.
"Yes. I don't think she wants to take notice of us, so that's why we need to keep fighting. We need our voice to be heard so she has to take notice of us.”
The next phase of the campaign will see the students take to social media.
“We're going to keep it viral, go online, go on Twitter... We just have to spread the word and fight for Yashika. We hope that this time in twelve hours Yashika's story will be trending and more people globally will hear of Yashika and her story.''
Sean Costello, Head of Humanities at Yashika's school has been central to the campaign.
“I think what's happening here is that the home office is creating a hostile environment for asylum seekers,” he tells me.
“A case like Yashika's just seems so cruel and callous – a student that's a straight A student at A-Level with five offers to five top institutions, all Russell Group, scolarships at three... for her to be deported sends out a message to all asylum seekers that, actually, this country doesn't welcome you anymore.”
He is passionate about Yashika's case and the wider plight of asylum seekers in general
“We've turned the words asylum seeker into a negative, we've turned it into an insult,” he tells me.
He explains that over the Christmas holidays Yashika spent five weeks in Yarl's Wood detention centre. She didn't tell anyone about it.
Yashika's case is part of an established pattern. Asylum applications from families are being split up. When a child turns eighteen, she's much easier to deport.
“It's much easier to deport an eighteen year old individual than it is to deport an entire family. Yashika's case was split from her family's. The New Statesman said there was a backlog on all asylum cases, however Yashika's family's case suddenly was processed and rejected in one day.”
Sean wants Theresa May to step in and stop the deportation.
“What this family and these individuals are contributing in net to this economy and this country is tremendous. Yashika wants to be a maths teacher, she already tutors year seven students, she didn't stop that in the face of her the asylum issue hanging over her.
“She was going to go to a university to study maths. If she was high performing migrant from another coutnry we would be welcoming her in with open arms. Yashika's little sister in year eleven is predicted all As and A stars in her GCSEs.
“We're talking about deporting this entire family before they've had an opportunity to at least get their children an education. It's callous, it's cruel at best and it really speaks volumes about what's happening to society in Britain.”
But the campaign of Yashika's fellow students has given Sean hope.
“Actually the student protest speaks more volumes because our students alongside everyone else who's got involved in this campaign have a real strong social and moral conscience.
“These are the people that are going to be running the country in twenty years and that fills me with a huge amount of pride. They've got the right idea. The people in power in the Home Office now don't.”
The Tories claimed to have left their 'nasty party' image behind them, promising us all a 'Big Society' of social responsibility and community spirit. Sean Costello would beg to differ.
“It really isn't the Big Society. Just because she's eighteen doesn't mean that Yashika doesn't need her family, her parents, her siblings. They're talking about deporting her tomorrow, Mothers Day, on her own. You couldn't write a caricature of the nasty party more than that.'
Sean is encouraged by the campaigning of Yashika's fellow students.
“There's a very anti-immigration feeling at the moment in Britain. The fact that students have managed to get over 160,000 signatures for a petition that started last Thursday is an illustration of the students' positive message.”
Sean tells me he embraces the diversity of his school.
''It's based in an extremely diverse society and that's what enriches it. That's why the students love it there, that's why staff love teaching there. A homogenous one size fits all society isn't going to benefit anyone. We need diversity.
“I've learnt so much from teaching at this school about other religions, cultures, other identities. We go to school to teach, but really we go to school to learn. The Home Secretary should perhaps come to Oasis Academy and see what Yashika brings to it but also to see what all of our students bring to it. It's got such a fantastic community and identity and to rip Yashika out of it will crush everyone.”
Shortly after this article was completed it was announced that Yashika's flight had been cancelled. A day's reprieve had been won, but the campaign to overturn the decision for good still continues. Sean Costello told me “The students and teachers see this as a huge victory for the campaign. We are of the understanding that the cancellation was enacted by the Home Office and we are of no doubt this is due to the tenacity and resolve of our students. The fight however is not over as we now seek to have Yashika removed from the detention centre and returned to class.”
Follow the Save Yashika campaign on Twitter: @SaveYahika
Use the hashtag #FightForYashika
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.
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