BY JOAN HENSON
Thousands of Sydneysiders joined national rallies on Palm Sunday to demand an end to offshore detention and that the 914 refugees on Nauru and Manus Island be resettled in Australia.
Some 5,000 people marched from Belmore Park to Victoria Park in Sydney, while 21,000 people campaigned nationwide.
Sydney’s rally celebrated parliament’s passage of the Medivac Bill in February, the release of refugee footballer, Hakeem Al-Araibi, from a Bangkok prison, and the removal of children from Nauru earlier this year.
Time for solemn reflection
However, it was also a time for solemn reflection about the challenges ahead for refugees wanting to settle permanently in the country.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the rally’s organisers, the Refugee Action Coalition, told CityHub that advocates have put huge political pressure on the Morrison government and the Labor opposition ahead of May’s federal election.
“There’s been a momentum building… There was such political pressure on the Labor Party that they voted for the Medivac bill. That’s the first time they have voted against Coalition refugee policy in many years.”
The health and welfare crises fuelling this political momentum were of huge concern to speakers.
Shukufa Tahiri, a former Hazara refugee and policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia, said that offshore refugees face “serious mental health issues”, having been “detained on Nauru and Manus Island five and half years after they sought Australia’s protection”.
She said that those living on bridging visas had “all assistance cut off over the past two years”, and many are “experiencing homelessness and destitution”.
Even recognised refugees are “subject to years of family separation and thousands of deliberate citizenship delays”.
There are 1,300 people on extended immigration detention in Australia, 6,000 people on bridging visas, 15,000 refugees on temporary protection visas, and thousands of refugees in the community.
Football commentator and former Socceroos captain, Craig Foster, who successfully backed the release of Al-Araibi earlier this year, headlined the event.
He said that, “The 12 lives that have been lost on Manus and Nauru weigh heavily on this nation”.
Racist rhetoric and fearmongering
Among rallygoers and speakers there was concern about racist rhetoric and fearmongering about refugees taking opportunities from locals, and how this might play out in the election.
Judith Wright, Deputy Secretary of the Australian Services Union, said, “Refugees are not taking away our homes, our welfare, and our jobs. In a fair society there should be plenty of these to go around for everyone”.
Rintoul said that Kevin Rudd was “elected on a substantially pro-refugee question”, so if the Coalition took a similar course to former prime minister John Howard, it would work against them in the polls.
Protest signs often sent a direct message to the Prime Minister. One sign said: Minister For Racist Extremism. It showed a photograph of Scott Morrison holding a newspaper article with the heading “PNG Shuns Boat Claims”.
The Australian medical students’ association led the rally.
The rally call was: “Scott Morrison, hear us say: bring them here, let them stay”.