High school students in Adelaide have been galvanised into protest in defence of classmates being victimised and abused by the federal government’s cruel refugee system.

Students at two secondary schools held a lunchtime protest on 26 August, calling for justice for refugees and in particular demanding support for 17 Vietnamese community detention students who have gone underground to escape deportation.

At Adelaide Secondary School of English, about 20 students from the students representative council, many of them also refugees, displayed handmade placards that said things like “We will help you – you are not alone” and “We are people, not puppets.”

At Woodville High School, dozens of students and teachers protested in front of the school, wearing gags on their mouths to symbolise the silencing effect of detention. The gags were emblazoned with “KEE080”, the code allocated by the Department of Immigration to the vessel that brought the Vietnamese students to Australia in 2011.

Department officials turned up on 26 June at the homes of two Woodville High School students, both from Vietnam, and whisked them away into closed detention. They were given no reason why their community detention was revoked. That night they were flown to Darwin, each terrified teenager surrounded by a ring of brutish Serco security guards, and incarcerated at Wickham Point detention centre.

When the word got out, a further 15 Vietnamese community detainees, all students attending high schools around Adelaide, fled their homes and went underground to evade incarceration or deportation. This was a brave act of defiance. What is more incredible is that the two students detained and sent to Darwin also subsequently escaped and still have not been recaptured.

Three weeks before the lunchtime school protests, there was a well-attended rally of almost 1,000 people on the steps of Parliament House, called by Woodville High School students and their supporters under the banner of #TwoTooMany.

Woodville High student Wathnak Vy – one of the leaders of the campaign – opened the rally with a fiery speech, inspiring the crowd with his raw anger at the government. It was clear that, although the rally was called to “Bring Back our Boys”, the implications of the protests were much broader.

The campaign is not simply a struggle for the 17 young people who now cower in fear of capture. It is a struggle for the thousands of people languishing in inhuman, squalid conditions in Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.

We also should remember the many people, including young people in our care, who continue to live in precarious situations in onshore detention, in community detention or on bridging visas.

Some supporters of the campaign, including some teachers and social workers, have questioned the students’ wisdom in running away and expressed concern for their welfare.

However, it’s absolutely understandable why they would go underground. They potentially are facing state violence, persecution, retribution and poverty if deported back to Vietnam – or a soul-destroying period of indefinite detention in Darwin or an offshore detention centre.

These students took action to defend themselves. They were organised. Undoubtedly they have extensive community support. Any one of us in the same situation would have considered doing the same thing.

What the 17 students perhaps didn’t know at the time they fled was just how much support they would receive from their fellow students and teachers. Refugee resistance, in all its forms, has always been a call for solidarity. The #TwoTooMany campaign is no exception. Wherever those 17 students are, continuing their daily struggle for freedom, at least they know that thousands of people have stood with them and will continue to support them.

In Adelaide, the irony of the loss of 17 Vietnamese young people at the same time as Hieu Van Le (a former Vietnamese refugee) has been sworn in as the new state governor has not gone unnoticed.

It’s promising to see that more and more school students, including at a number of Catholic schools around Australia, are organising opposition to mandatory detention and for refugee justice.

It was also great to see the #TwoTooMany campaign endorse the March in August protest, and organise a sizeable contingent of Woodville High School students for it.

The refugee rights movement needs more young people who are prepared to take a stand against this government’s cruelty – on both sides of the razor wire – and more teachers and parents willing to cheer them on when they do.

[Paul Coats is a teacher at Adelaide Secondary School of English,  AEU sub-branch secretary at his site and a member of Socialist Alternative.]