In Melbourne, a strong crowd of approximately 15,000 people walked from the State Library of Victoria to Alexandra Gardens, calling on the federal government to adopt more compassionate and humane refugee policies. Protestors carried placards and chanted “let them stay” and “free free the refugees” as they marched down Swanston Street.
Similar rallies were held in Launceston, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin, Canberra and numerous regional towns.
Many Uniting Church members attended the march, with the UCA logo on prominent display at the rallies.
Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan was one of the speakers who addressed the crowd outside the State Library. He joined a panel of interfaith speakers, including Sylvie Leber from the Jewish Christian Muslim Association and Mohamad Mohideen from Islamic Council Victoria.
“Manus and Nauru must close; offshore detention must cease. Australia needs to step up and take some leadership in the region and develop some regional frameworks.
“Children should not be held in detention anywhere. Those who face deportation to Nauru must be able to stay.”
Mr McMillan said the Australian government has failed to live up to its commitment to resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees. Canada has so far settled more than 26,000 refugees from the Syrian crisis. Australia has granted protection to only 29 Syrian refugees.
“The Uniting Church says to all political parties – don’t make the suffering of these people seeking refuge and asylum a political football,” Mr McMillan said.
“The Uniting Church says to the Australian parliament – it’s time you acted compassionately and responsibly as a parliament in the lucky country.
“Now is the time to change the policies and for Australians to act with a generous heart. Australians do care and we do have boundless plains to share.”
Another speaker at the Melbourne rally was Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. She told the crowd the Australian government would save $3 billion from this year’s budget if they close Manus Island and Nauru detention centres.
“The government has to stop this madness, start to care about people rather than just the politics,” she said.
“We don’t want to see vulnerable children used as pawns in a political game just because the government wants to say they ‘stopped the boats’.”
In February this year, the Australian government announced it will deport 267 people seeking asylum, including 37 babies, to Nauru.
Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Centre was one of the lawyers who challenged the legality of Australia’s offshore detention regime. The High Court’s decision to rule in favour of the Australian government sparked an incredible community response which saw churches, schoolteachers, doctors and nurses openly defy the law to protect people seeking asylum.
“Two months later, every single one of those 267 people are still here,” Mr Webb told the crowd.
“The reason all of these people are still here, two months after Peter Dutton said he would deport them, is because public opinion is shifting.”
Mr Webb pointed to the bravery of staff at Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane, who refused to discharge baby Asha and return her to Nauru, as an example of this changing momentum.
“We have seen over 100 churches around Australia opening their doors and offering sanctuary to people at risk of deportation,” Mr Webb said.
“We have seen every single state Premier support calls for Malcolm Turnbull to show some compassion.”
Mr Webb ended his speech with a message of hope.
“Change is needed, change is possible and change is happening right now,” he said.
“It’s only by standing together that we can achieve the change we so desperately need.”
You can see more photos from the march on our Facebook photo album.
Stuart McMillan’s address can be viewed in the video below: