Moderator Rev Sharon Hollis has urged Australians to reject the federal government’s “racist dog-whistling” during her address at the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees.
Thousands joined in protest marches in cities and regional towns across Australia on Sunday to call on the government to end its policy of offshore detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
Ms Hollis was part of an interfaith panel, which included representatives from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hare Krishna community in Melbourne.
“We come on this day of peace to say that the current refugee and asylum seeker policy that both sides of politics hold is unacceptable,” Ms Hollis said.
“To both sides of government, honour the human rights of those who have been shunted to Nauru and Manus Island. Bring them here so that they might live among us and make a home here.”
This year marks five years since the Australian government, then under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, announced that no refugees who arrive by boat will be resettled in Australia.
Since then, nine men have died in the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
“We say to asylum seekers who are languishing on Nauru and Manus: we see you, we hear you, we have not forgotten you and we will do all we can to raise your voice in our community,” Ms Hollis said.
An estimated 30,000 asylum seekers currently live in the Australian community waiting for their claims to be processed.
Recent changes to the government’s Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) mean many asylum seekers are struggling to pay rent and access mental health services.
“To asylum seekers who live in our community with the terrible insecurity of temporary visas: you are welcome and we long for you to make your home here with us,” Ms Hollis said.
Earlier this month, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton said his department is considering fast-tracking white South African farmers through Australia’s refugee program.
The proposal has been criticised by refugee groups, the South African government and Australian politicians, with Greens leader Richard di Natale labelling it a return to the White Australia policy.
“I say to my fellow Australians, let us open our hearts, let us not heed the dog-whistling going on in Canberra and let us be a welcoming community,” Ms Hollis said.
“To the Australian government, no more with your racist dog-whistling that prioritises white lives over those who are suffering already. We will not stand for it, we will continue to advocate and we are not going away.”
World Vision Australia chief advocate and Baptist minister Rev Tim Costello echoed Ms Hollis’ thoughts, calling on Mr Dutton to reconsider his proposal.
“Here’s an idea Peter Dutton: before one white South African – whose government isn’t persecuting them – comes, take the Rohingya on Manus Island, whose governments have been persecuting them,” he said.
Mr Costello recently visited Manus Island as well as refugee camps in the Middle East and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. He said the sense of despair was more pervasive on Manus compared to the other camps.
“What profoundly shocked me was that there was far less hope on Manus than in the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, even in Cox’s Bazar,” he said.
“The sheer malevolence by the government to practice uncertainty and torture on these people who are refugees is what can only be described as evil.”
Aziz, a Sudanese refugee who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013, shared his story from Manus via a phone link-up.
Last year, the Manus Island detention centre was closed and the refugees forcibly moved to alternate accommodation in Lorengau.
Aziz said they have simply been transported from one prison to another.
“We have several men who have attempted to take their own lives. They think they have been forgotten on this island,” he said.