The Light the Dark vigils were sparked by the photo of three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who was found lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. The now-iconic image led to a global outpouring of grief and became a symbol of the growing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
Vigils were held in most capital cities in Australia. In Melbourne, at least 10,000 braved the rain and gathered at Treasury Gardens to remember Aylan and the millions of refugees throughout the world.
Pamela Curr, campaign coordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, urged the crowd to continue advocating the government to support a more humane and compassionate approach to asylum seekers.
“We will keep coming out to fight, to light the dark until our government opens its heart and opens the door,” she said.
“We need to open our hearts. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”
Vigils were also held in Belgrave, Ballarat, Geelong, Morwell, Frankston, Kyneton, Castlemaine, Port Arlington, Launceston and Hobart.
The Syrian conflict is now in its fifth year and has driven more than four million people to seek sanctuary in other countries. A further 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced.
Countries in the Middle East overwhelmingly bear the burden of Syria’s refugee crisis. Turkey currently hosts nearly two million Syrian refugees and Lebanon has accepted more than one million refugees, nearly one quarter of its population.
Approximately 19,000 Syrians sought a refugee or humanitarian visa in Australia in the last financial year, but only 1,007 visas were granted.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott indicated that Australia may accept more Syrian refugees, but will not increase its annual intake of 13,750 refugees.
Uniting Church President Stuart McMillian called on the federal government to significantly increase Australia’s refugee intake in response to the largest global refugee crisis since World War II.
“While we welcome the federal government’s commitment to increase our refugee intake from Syria, the scale of this crisis requires a much greater response,” he said.
“I am pleased that politicians and political parties across the country are recognising that Australia has a moral duty to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis.
“We have seen the human face of this tragedy and we can no longer turn our backs. As one of the wealthiest and most secure countries in the world, we have an obligation to respond generously.”
Mr McMillan also cautioned the government about military intervention in Syria and its potential to worsen the situation for vulnerable civilians.
“We must take some responsibility for our own contribution to instability in this region. We cannot commit to more military action while ignoring the victims of this conflict,” he said.
“Countries like Germany are taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from a conflict. Now is the time Australia must face the reality of the global refugee crisis. It’s time to reopen our hearts and our borders.”
Rev Elenie Poulos, National Director of UnitingJustice, said the government should increase the number of Syrian refugees without reducing its intake of refugees from other countries.
“We believe that Australia should offer 15,000 to 20,000 refugees protection as a matter of urgency,” she said.
“Refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq should be given permanent visas with work rights and supported to access appropriate healthcare and education in Australia. A substantial increase in Australia’s current funding commitment to the UNHCR is also required.”
Ms Poulos believes all asylum seekers should be allowed to live in the community while their claims for protection are determined.
“Any Syrians or Iraqis or others from the region who are currently imprisoned in our detention centres, here or on Manus Island or Nauru should also be released,” she said.
“They, too, should be allowed to live in the community with work rights and access to services while their claims are processed.”
Rev Brendan Byrne, minister of Mountview Uniting Church, has started a petition calling on Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement in Australia. You can sign the petition here.
Image from Nick Haines via Twitter.