BY RYAN QUINN
Over a thousand people rallied Sydney CBD streets over the weekend to support the current global refugee crisis.
At least four different protest groups joined together at Sydney Town Hall, with the same overarching message: racism is bad, welcoming refugees is good.
Refugee Action Coalition Sydney and its supporters surrounded the town hall on Saturday, while Syrian anti-war protestors gathered at the building on Sunday.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon told Saturday’s crowd that Australia’s current strategy was failing.
“What right do we have to go in and bomb those countries, cause such disruption, and that disruption drives the suffering of these people. That is not the way to address these problems and that message has to come through loud and clear,” she told the crowded squre.
The rally followed last week’s news that Australia will accept 12,000 Syrian refugees who are fleeing to Europe due to civil unrest in their country.
Pro-refugee supporters peacefully closed traffic on George Street on Saturday, chanting “open the borders, close the camp, free the refugees”.
Others held up banners that said “say no to racism. Support the refugees!”
Refugee Action Coalition Sydney Coordinator Ian Rintoul said that while he was happy with the federal government’s intake of Syrian refugees, he would like to see a consistent increase in refugees assisted.
“The only thing we’re happy about is that the numbers are on top of the existing intake, but they are on top of an extremely miserly annual intake,” Mr Rintroul said.
“The government has already cut the annual intake from 20,000 to 13,750. Even if [the government] was talking about taking in the 14,000 in the next year, and they’re not, this wouldn’t even make up for the numbers that have already been cut,” he said.
“We are not talking a one-off of 50,000, we would like to see a year-on-year intake of 50,000.”
In her address, Ms Rhiannon said there are now 60 million refugees across the world.
“If you go from Afghanistan across to Northern Africa, there is about nine wars. Now I’m not saying that the West is causing them all, but we are exacerbating a situation that is causing this suffering,” Ms Rhiannon said.
“Now we see Australia, and our bombs to the suffering of the people of Syria. War is what causes the bulk of the refugees to move out of fear and suffering,” she said.
Last week’s announcement that Australia will join US-led forces for Syrian air strikes was the catalyst for a smaller protest on Sunday held by the Australian Syrian group, National Union of Syria Sydney.
Union representative Hanadi Assoud disagreed with the planned refugee intake, and said he would like the war to be solved altogether.
“I would prefer not to have any refugees in Australia. I would prefer these people go back and live in dignity in their country instead of what’s happening in Europe,” Ms Assoud told City Hub.
“I just want them to stop the war in Syria, do the right thing and go through the right channels,” she said.
Ms Assoud said that the move into Syria had not been properly discussed.
“It’s not a legitimate act to do. It is bombing Syria without even consulting this government. It is not legal. It has not been discussed in the UN. It has only been consulted with the Americans,” she said.
But Mr Rintroul said that last week’s intake announcement was in response to Light the Dark vigils, which saw 5,000 gather at Sydney’s Hyde Park on Monday September 7, as well as in other capital cities.
The vigils commemorated Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach.
“One thing we learnt from the massive vigils is that the federal government can be pushed and they were clearly pushed from do nothing to do something,” he said.
Mr Rintoul also said that their rally gave people the opportunity to express their anger in the aftermath of the government’s announcement.
“A genuine humanitarian response has to include Manus Island, it has to include Naru, it has to include people who are in detention in Australia,” he said.
Former Manus Island worker Charlotte Chung also spoke at Saturday’s rally, despite it being prohibited under the Border Force Act.
“This is the first time since I’ve left Manus Island that I’ve come out and spoken in public,” she said.
The Socialist Alternative Sydney also held a forum nearby immediately following Saturday’s rally to further discuss refugee intake, and called the government to “tear down the fences” of detention centres.
“The Liberal and Labor parties of Australia continue to outdo the world in racist inhumanity, imprisoning Syrian refugees in its detention hell-holes,” the forum event Facebook page said.
Saturday’s demonstration will be followed up by another on October 11.
Additional reporting by Kenji Sato and Emiko Reed