Swanston Street in Melbourne is normally occupied by a stream of trams and pedestrians. On Palm Sunday, it was transformed into a sea of protestors calling for justice for refugees.
I was a part of the Uniting Church group gathered outside Wesley Uniting Church before the march. As the congregation approached the State Library of Victoria, I saw a large crowd assembled on the lawns.
The event’s Facebook page indicated 8,000 people would be attending. Event organisers were hoping that 10,000 protestors would march in solidarity with asylum seekers. By the time the march concluded at Queen Victoria Gardens, police estimated that up to 15,000 people had showed up.
This was not a small protest group. This was a vocal, passionate and growing community of ordinary Australians sending a message loud and clear to both sides of politics – indefinite mandatory detention must end.
A delegation of faith leaders, including National Assembly President Prof Rev Andrew Dutney and VicTas Synod Moderator Dan Wootton, led the march. It was a powerful display of interfaith unity.
Banners expressing outrage at political leaders were displayed alongside signs calling for love and compassion. The passing of Malcolm Fraser just a week before the march provided a timely reminder of the generosity and hospitality our country once extended towards refugees. Multiple signs called on the government to honour Mr Fraser’s legacy by embracing a more humane approach to asylum seekers.
The march took place in a spirit of hope and optimism. Parents marched hand-in-hand with their children, teenagers walked with their friends. A group calling itself Grandmothers Against Detention joined in the rally. This was an issue that clearly concerns Australians across multiple generations.
I was particularly heartened to see many children attending the march. The fight for justice will be a long struggle and the next generation will be future advocates for refugee rights.
At the halfway point of the march, I looked back and saw a seemingly endless stream of people occupying Swanston Street. It was a spectacular and inspiring sight to behold. To see so many people marching in solidarity with refugees reflected the strong determination amongst the broader community for change.
There are countless Australians who wish to see an end to the systematic abuse and mistreatment of asylums seekers. The walk recalled a caring and welcoming Australia that once embraced its role as a haven for our persecuted neighbours. Our nation can rise above the xenophobia and fear-mongering that dominates the current immigration discourse. The 15,000 people marching together was a visible demonstration of compassion triumphing over cruelty, of love overcoming hatred.
Similar marches took place in major capital cities throughout Australia. Expatriate communities in 19 cities including New York, Montreal, London, Dublin, Hong Kong and Geneva joined in the global call to end mandatory detention. Let us hope that the chorus of voices can turn the tide in this toxic debate and shine a light on one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history.
Towards the end of the march, I listened to a choir sing a modified version of ‘Thunder’ by The Jackson Southernaires:
“I wanna go where there’s peace and harmony, where little children won’t be afraid to walk the street. I wanna go where there’s joy and peace of mind, where refugees don’t vanish and cry.”
May we one day sing a new song that celebrates the freedom and dignity of refugees, and of a generous nation that opens its arms to the vulnerable and the needy.