The mercury dropped to as low as 10 degrees celsius as Melbourne shivered through its coldest day of the year, but moderator Rev Sharon Hollis reminded the contingent gathered at Wesley Church before the walk that the suffering of refugees in offshore detention is “a million times worse”.
The day before the walk, the ‘Refugees Welcome Here’ sign outside Wesley was defaced by vandals to say ‘Kill Refugees Here’. Wesley minister Rev Alistair Macrae said it was a sobering reminder of the need to stand strong in the face of hostility.
The Palm Sunday walk followed a new route this year as it made a circle inside the CBD, bringing traffic in the heart of Melbourne to a standstill.
People from various faith backgrounds, families, children and even a number of dogs joined in the walk.
The Grandmothers against Detention of Refugee Children once again turned out in large numbers to voice their disapproval of the Australian government’s offshore detention policies
The Uniting Church logo was on prominent display and a group of 18 refugee men from Swan Hill came down to Melbourne with Swan Hill Uniting Church members to participate in the rally.
Ms Hollis addressed the crowd at the State Library as part of an interfaith panel alongside Mohamed Mohideen from the Islamic Council of Victoria and Rabbi Kim Ettlinger.
“At the moment, Christians and people of goodwill are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until we have a fair and humane refugee policy,” Ms Hollis said.
“We are dissatisfied with the detention of asylum seekers in offshore detention camps. We are not satisfied with the use of asylum seekers as political pawns.
“We are filled with a holy, righteous dissatisfaction with the way vulnerable people seeking asylum are treated by the government and we say ‘enough is enough’”.
On the same day as the rally, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told reporters that none of the refugees on Manus Island will be resettled in Australia and that “advocates can bleat all they want, they can protest all they want”.
The Manus Island detention centre is due to close by October this year, but refugees who are not taken by the US will be resettled in PNG. People not assessed to be refugees will be sent back to their country of origin. The Nauru immigration detention facility will remain open indefinitely.
“When Mr Dutton says we are ‘peddling false hope’, that is untrue – there is a hopeful and fair way forward and we call on the government to develop fairer policies,” Ms Hollis said.
“We will continue to turn out at rallies, we will continue to write letters until the camps are closed, the people are brought here and we have a fair policy to welcome refugees and give them a home in this country.”
Nazir Yousafi, President of the Victorian Afghan Associations Network, said refugees have made significant contributions to Australian society.
“We refugees have worked hard, we have established businesses, we have paid taxes and we are living in Australian society happily,” Mr Yousafi said.
“We raised our children in Australian society. We are happy and proud Australians.”
Aziz, who has been detained on Manus Island for the past four years, shared his message from Papua New Guinea via an audio message. He thanked the crowd for their solidarity and support and urged Australians to continue advocating for refugees.
“These rallies are important, but also keep campaigning in between rallies to end the offshore detention,” he said.
“The rights of us refugees have been abused by the government over the last four years. Refugees must be treated with respect and human dignity. We are not criminals.”
Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Centre met Aziz on Manus Island last year. He told the crowd that refugees like Aziz have much to contribute to Australian society.
“I say ‘bring them here’ not just because it’s the right thing to do, not just because leaving people in limbo is cruel and fundamentally wrong. I say ‘bring them here’ because, frankly, we will be lucky to have people like Aziz here in our country,” Mr Webb said.
“We cannot sit back and hope for leadership from our politicians. It is you who must lead them.”