An estimated 15,000 people marched in the streets of Melbourne on Sunday to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers.
Now in its second year, the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice drew a diverse crowd of refugee supporters who marched from the State Library of Victoria to Queen Victoria Gardens. Palm Sunday marches have a rich tradition in the Uniting Church that stretches back over 30 years.
People from all ages and backgrounds – children, teenagers, adults, grandparents, babies in prams and even puppies – joined the rally, which took place in a family-friendly atmosphere.
National Assembly President Rev Prof Andrew Dutney and VicTas Synod Moderator Dan Wootton were among the faith leaders and refugee advocates that led the walk.
Prof Dutney was one of the speakers who addressed the crowd.
“Our current asylum seeker policies do not reflect the heart of this nation. They must be changed,” said Prof Dutney.
“Jesus said ‘do to others as they would do to you’. This message is consistent not just with Christians, but with all religions around the world.”
Prof Dutney drew a comparison of Australia’s current asylum seeker policies with extremism.
“The definition of an extremist is a person, group, or nation that excuses itself from the universal moral law: treat other people the way you want to be treated,” Prof Dutney said.
“Policies under this government and the previous government make the whole of Australia look like extremists in the world of nations.”
Uniting Church members from different congregations throughout Victoria participated in the rally, carrying banners displaying messages of support for refugees.
“Jesus was a refugee,” read one of the signs carried by a Uniting Church congregation member.
Another banner quoted a passage from Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you let me in.”
Daniel Webb, from the Human Rights Law Centre, said that Australia is the only country in the world that subjects children to indefinite and mandatory detention.
Mr Webb said that our asylum seeker policies do not do justice to who we are as a nation.
“We are not nasty and we are not cruel, but our asylum seeker policies most certainly are,” he said.
The Moss Review released last fortnight found incidents of rape, sexual assault and drugs for sexual favours inside the Nauru detention centre.
Indefinite detention can also create intense psychological trauma for children.
The Forgotten Children report found that 34 per cent of children in onshore and offshore detention “suffer from a mental health disorder of such severity that they require psychiatric support”.
Mohammad Ali Baqiri is an Afghan refugee who came to Australia as a 10 year old and was detained on Nauru for three years. Now an Australian citizen, Mr Baqiri expressed his shame at how his new country is treating asylum seekers.
“The mistreatment of asylum seekers in Australia has shocked nations around the world,” he said.
Australia’s asylum seeker policies were investigated by the United Nations earlier this month and were found to be in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture.
Mr Baqiri called on Australian leaders to “grant asylum seekers their freedom in the name of humanity”.
“We urgently need leaders with a human approach, who will make it a top priority to [give] care and protection for those who need peace and security,” Mr Baqiri said.
“This land was known in the past as a country where everyone was given a fair go. That spirit is needed now more than ever.”
Mr Baqiri concluded his speech with a question: is it possible for Australia to once again become a role model for human rights, justice and a fair go?
Similar marches took place around the nation in Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart, Perth and Armidale.