Refuse. Retract. Resist borders for children!

18 January 2017

The fight against borders in our schools stepped up a notch this week. Against Borders for Children (ABC) hosted its first open conference on Saturday and yesterday they sent an nationwide email, in conjunction with renowned civil liberties group Liberty, to every headteacher in England. The letter requests parents be informed of their right to opt out of the new nationality questions in the census, which even the House of Lords admits has “all the hallmarks of racism”, and retract any data already given without full knowledge of those rights.

To opt out of the nationality data collection on behalf of your children, complete this form and submit it to your child’s school by Thursday this week. For more information, take a look at ABC’s frequently asked questions.

On Saturday parents and teachers came together with students and campaigners for the 100 strong, first open conference of ABC. The coalition, started in August 2016, has launched for a national boycott of the Department of Education census collecting the country of birth and nationality data of 8 million children. The census promises to make our schools part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ and would subject children as young as five to the census – and its potentially devastating consequences.

Thanks to public scrutiny brought to bear by ABC, in November the government agreed to remove children under 5 years old from the ‘foreign children database’. But the campaign continues , and is also calling on the government to commit to safeguarding children “from the stigma of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the violence that accompanies it.”

Parents reminded of their rights and schools of their obligations under the Human Rights Act

The Guardian reports that Department of Education officials have an agreement, since June 2015, to share the personal data of up to 1,500 schoolchildren a month with the Home Office.”

Since this policy has come into force, some schools have asked only non-white pupils to prove their nationality, also others to bring in their passports – which updated guidance has confirmed is not only unnecessary, but not allowed.

The letter reads: “The Government provided inadequate and confusing guidance to schools about their duties to provide this data and this has led to misunderstandings between schools, parents and pupils about what they are and aren’t legally obliged to do.”

Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty, said: “It shouldn’t have fallen to campaigners to inform schools and parents about their right to refuse to give this information – but the Department for Education wasn’t going to step up.

“Parents and guardians deserve to know they do not need to be complicit in this Government’s ‘foreign children list’ experiment, which uses children’s education to enforce border controls. If enough of them take a stand, we can make the playground off-limits to border police, defend every child’s right to education and begin to reunite our communities.”

ABC adds: “According to the DfE’s own guidelines, providing this data is optional and does not affect school funding. By the DfE’s own admission, if large numbers of parents refuse to answer the new questions in the January and May censuses, the data collected will be useless and they may be forced to scrap the data collection entirely. This means parents and schools can legally work together to stop this information going to DfE and the Home Office.

If a significant minority continue the boycott then this policy will fall.”

The conference: building a movement against borders for children

As well as raising awareness of these issues and planning future actions, ABC’s first open conference featured broader discussions about ‘the hostile environment’, imaginative discussions about how race and migration should be covered in schools and the grave civil rights implications for everyone’s data privacy rights slowly but surely disappearing.

Representatives spoke from a range of organisations including Liberty, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Freedom from Torture, the National Union of Students (NUS), defenddigitalme and Southall Black Sisters, giving some indication of how widely the census is seen as a threat to civil liberties and to children’s wellbeing.

NUT general secretary Kevin Courtney highlighted the corrosive effects of government policies that co-opt schools and universities into the surveillance of people they are supposed to be educating, warning of a “culture of fear & compliance” taking root in schools. He also commented on the high proportion of Jewish teachers who object to the data collection on children’s ethnicity, often with reference to the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany and sentiments like: “this has happened before.”

Both he and NUS president Malia Bouattia linked the census to PREVENT, the government’s ‘counter-extremism’ strategy which co-opted schools to root out ‘radicalisation’ in the same way they are now being drafted in to root out undocumented migrants. Malia strongly condemned both programmes as part of a wider shift to a total surveillance state. Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters, put it in no uncertain terms: ‘the powers the police are going to have are similar to those in apartheid South Africa.’


Stories were shared of the enormous impact this has on children’s education; of grades ‘falling off a cliff’ following the deportation of parents or children being taken out of school for years at a time because of their mothers’ fear of Home Office surveillance. Another teacher condemned some schools that have bypassed parents altogether and asked children to submit the data themselves and making teachers ‘unwittingly complicit’.

Young migrants from Let Us Learn, Jawaab and Sin Fronteras shared their experiences of discrimination and their struggles to overcome it, and Ajay from Freed Voices shared his letter to his pre-detention self, adding:

“on paper, this government calls for integration. In reality, they cause division.”

There was also a sobering discussion about the astronomical rise in discrimination and hate crime since the Brexit vote, and the day ended with a strong international focus: a photo taken in solidarity with the Dreamers movement in the USA, ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration on 20th January.

To opt out of the nationality data collection on behalf of your children, complete this form and submit it to your child’s school by Thursday this week. For more information, take a look at ABC’s frequently asked questions. #BoycottSchoolCensus


DOCUMENTARY: Watching the Watchers – Exposing the Secret Surveillance State

The Snowden leaks have revealed some of the darkest secrets of the British and American intelligence agencies. From dignitaries and dissidents to ordinary people, online and on the phone, we are all being watched. Are our privacy and civil rights being compromised, or is this a necessary line of defence in the war on terror? Shining a light in the darkest of places, we tell the story of the secret surveillance state and those who exposed it.

Tweet about the film/check for updates: #watchingwatchers

Lessons from the Snowden Leaks

The surveillance programmes exposed by Edward Snowden reinvented the term ‘Orwellian’. Yet while in the USA thousands marched in solidarity with Snowden and against what he exposed; congressmen demanded resignations from their spy chiefs; and authoritative institutions ruled bulk data collection illegal – in London, with honourable exception, all I hear is crickets; and the sound of Britain sliding to 33rd place in the Press Freedom Index. That silence is as much a threat to civil liberties as the surveillance itself. 

snowdenpic38 Degrees’ petition demanding a public inquiry into the Tempora surveillance programme is stalling before 5,000 signatures despite the fact leading intellectuals, journalists, political leaders and human rights groups have vigorously condemned it. Leaks proved it was kept secret precisely because Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) anticipated a strong legal challenge against this gross violation of civil rights. But instead they’re getting away with it, and journalists are the ones taking the heat.

The US may be engaged in a witch hunt but Snowden still enjoys a higher approval rating at home than either Obama or Congress, while in the UK, less than 20 per cent of people consider the surveillance state too intrusive and most disapproved of the leaks. Unlike Washington, Berlin, Paris, even Jakarta – we’ve had no mass protests either. This is partly a problem of coverage – while scandal after scandal has blazed across the front pages of all Europe and rocked administrations from Berlin to Jakarta, they are being systematically ignored by the bulk of the British media. But there is more to it than that.

Not six weeks into my first job and I was on the phone to GCHQ, the most guarded faction of the British secret service. I was requesting an interview for my film Watching the Watchers, assuming, correctly, that if they said no to Glen Greenwald, they’d say no to me – but it was worth a shot. The Guardian was more helpful. I paid a visit to their London offices for my first interview, with their resident expert and former security editor, Richard Norton-Taylor. He reeled off an impressive list of case studies: torture, extraordinary rendition and war crimes; arms deals with foreign dictators; spying on peaceful campaigners and blackmailing journalists into betraying their sources. But what really hit home for me astute observation that governments, when they need to conceal embarrassing or illegal activity, will always ‘fly the flag of national security’ because it invokes deference.

This has been a strong historical tendency in British political culture. Britain has more CCTV cameras per inhabitant than any other country in the world and, as one Spiegel journalist wrote, many Brits see GCHQ as the: “amiable gentlemen in shabby tweed jackets who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma coding machine in World War II” – even if they have launched the most ambitious programme of global surveillance in history.

When the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, was being grilled over the leaks by a home affairs select committee, he was interrupted mid-sentence by the voice of Jo McCarthy, who had apparently possessed the body of Labour’s Keith Vaz. “Do you love this country?” it demanded. If we had a constitution that enshrined our civil right to privacy (or a Human Rights Act our prime minister wasn’t trying to wriggle out of,) things might get muddy here. But for men like that, Project Tempora is just an expedient line of defence in an endless and borderless war on terror. And if that terrifies you, or you simply maintain that the public has the right to what Snowden gave us – the chance to decide – well, that’s just unpatriotic. Rusbridger’s response was artful. We are patriots, he affirmed, and one of the things we are most patriotic about is our tradition of respect for democracy and press freedom.

David Cameron claims the Guardian’s coverage of the NSA leaks shows no sense of ‘social responsibility’. In fact, it has proven the Guardian to be one of the few mainstream media outlets left in this country with any semblance of social responsibility left. Increasingly news is seen as a product and citizens as consumers instead of participants in a dialogue that should be directing our elected representatives. No wonder then, that three quarters of people in Britain think the mainstream media ‘sometimes or frequently lies’ to their audience.

This question of defining the media’s responsibility is also the missing link in the debates around press reform. Bending the rules for stories that might sell papers but serves no real purpose – like the phone-hacking of Milly Dowler – is indefensible. But if the Watergate Scandal had been broken by a phone hack, would the ends not justify the means? If blowing the whistle was what it took to expose illegal MP expense claims (which it was) or secret US bombings designed to perpetuate the Vietnam War (which it was) then they are best considered acts of courage. And if similar tactics had been able to prevent the Iraq War by exposing the truth about weapons of mass destruction, that would be grounds for a Nobel Peace Prize.

In time it will become clear that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Edward Snowden, who has done us an immeasurable service and demonstrated that, even working at the heart of the secret state, people are not machines. However powerful the pressure to conform, to take the cheque and keep quiet, there will always be those who, moved by injustice, will speak out. But it counts for little, unless we all speak out together.


Originally published by the Huffington Post 10/04/2014