Groundswell of support for refugees


Prime Minister John Howard's handling of the crisis aboard the MS Tampa, home to more than 400 asylum seekers for more than a week when the government denied the Norwegian ship permission to allow its passengers onto Australian soil, sparked outrage around the country from refugee rights advocates, migrant communities and supporters of human rights. Picture

From one corner of the country to another, rallies, pickets and demonstrations took place to demand that the government allow the Tampa to land. Even after the crisis's resolution, when the asylum seekers were shipped off to Nauru and New Zealand to await processing, community groups continued to call for them to be granted asylum in Australia.

Also prominent in the demonstrations were calls to stop the deportation of the Bedraie family. Mohammad Bedraie, an asylum seeker from Iran, spoke out about conditions inside Australia's detention centres on a Four Corners special on August 20; his son Shayan is seriously ill. A Federal Court judge has sent their appeal against deportation to the full bench.

In Adelaide, Rebecca Meckelburg reports, 400 supporters gathered on September 7 for a "Fair go for refugees" rally. The protest was the second in three days after 200 people gathered on September 4 for a meeting organised by the Salvation Army.

The rally was the work of a newly formed group, "Fair go for asylum seekers", which includes representatives of 30 different organisations.

Speakers at the September 7 rally included Jeremy Moore, a human rights lawyer, Don McMaster, author of the book, Asylum seekers: Australia's response to refugees, Fahad Noori, a refugee from Iran, Chris White, secretary of the United Trades and Labour Council, and Don Smith, a Kaurna elder.

McMaster accused the Australian government of making refugees pawns in a game of political opportunism, saying "The government's solution to the Tampa issue will not deter refugees from trying to come to Australia just as detention has not deterred them. Refugees are people escaping persecution and hardship and they are doing so in increasing numbers."

The rally concluded by marching from Victoria Square to foreign minister Alexander Downer's office.

Future events in Adelaide include a September 23 public meeting on the refugee crisis and a "freedom ride" to Woomera detention centre to greet the refugees on September 21-22.

In Sydney, reports Dani Barley, 100 people gathered for an emergency action, called by the Socialist Alliance with just 24 hours notice on August 30. The crowd outside Prime Minister John Howard's Sydney office chanted "Refugees are welcome, racists are not" and condemned the PM's stance on the Tampa crisis.

A broad range of representatives, including from the Socialist Alliance, Democrats, Greens, Unity Party, Jesuit Refugee Service, Ethnic Communities Council, National Union of Students, Friends of Palestine, Resistance, Free the Refugees Campaign, International Socialist Organisation, and the Refugee Action Collective, all spoke of their outrage at the government's actions.

The rally also unanimously adopted a resolution of support for the crew of the Norwegian vessel.

A rally was also held in Sydney's western suburbs on September 1. Under the theme "No one is illegal", the action was organised by the Refugee Action Collective.

In Lismore, Nick Fredman reports, 30 people attended a speakout called by the Socialist Alliance on September 4 to protest the federal government's treatment of refugees.

Protestors had planned to deliver their demands to National Party MP Ian Causley, well-known for attitudes his opponents believe are racist, but the local representative had vacated and locked up his office for the day.

In Newcastle, Cameron Brown reports, 30 people attended a speakout called by the Socialist Alliance to protest the Howard government's treatment of refugees.

The local Socialist Alliance has pledged to help and harbour any refugees that manage to escape from the refugee detention camp that is being established at the Singleton army camp, outside the city.

In Hobart, Kamala Emanuel reports, 300 people joined a lunchtime rally in Franklin Square on September 6 to support the Tampa refugees and to oppose the government's handling of the issue. The rally was organised by the Human Rights Week committee.

Speakers from Amnesty International, church groups, the newly formed Tasmanians for Refugees, the Socialist Alliance and the Greens sought to expose the myths about refugees promoted by the government.

Alex Bainbridge from the Socialist Alliance accused Labor and the Coalition of supporting policies, like the embargo against Iraq, that impel people to flee their country of origin. "Howard is not doing anything to help refugees, he just wants to send them somewhere else."

Although the refugees were already on their way to Papua New Guinea, the first stop in their journey to Naura and New Zealand, Greens Senator Bob Brown called for the Tampa refugees to be returned to Australia "even now" and for the warships to be returned to port.

This was the first big refugee rights demonstration in Hobart for a long time. There will be a further protest on September 11 outside the immigration department.

In Darwin, Kate Stockdale reports, the city's newly formed Refugee Action Collective held its first action on August 29, attended by 30 people, outside the offices of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

Rallygoers voiced their opposition to the construction of further detention facilities in the city. A temporary facility for 900 people has been proposed for the naval base Coonawarra and a permanent facility will be built by 2003.

Beryl Mulder of the Multicultural Council told the crowd, "Refugees deserve more humane treatment instead of being demonised. These are people in desperate circumstances who need a fair go."

Organisers thought the action was such a success that they met again the following day to blockade the building, linking arms across the entry to the building.

The Darwin Refugee Action Collective consists of individuals and groups including the Australian Association of Social Workers, Multicultural Council of the NT, Resistance and Socialist Alliance.

According to the collective's Carlie Atkinson, "misinformation is at the root of so much of the negative public vibe against refugees. The RAC hopes to be a voice in the community to address this."

In Canberra, Andrew Hall reports, nearly 500 people filled most of the space in Garema Place, the city's central plaza, on August 31, the International Day of Action against Racism.

Kevin Buzzacott of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy expressed solidarity with refugees in their common struggle with racism, while dissident ALP senator Barney Cooney said it was a basic humanitarian issue to not leave a group of asylum seekers afloat on the high seas.

Trade unionists were strongly represented by a large contingent of rank-and-file members and officials from the Community and Public Sector Union, and by Trades and Labor Council secretary Jeremy Pyner, who addressed the crowd.

Representatives of the Democrats, the Greens and the Socialist Alliance also spoke.

The rally then marched to Liberal senator Margaret Reid's office, chanting "lock up Ruddock, free the refugees", before continuing across the road to the office of ALP senator Bob McMullen.

In Brisbane, Kerry Burns reports, over 200 people attended a rally in the Queens Street Mall on August 31, representing dozens of different community, activist and political organisations.

After listening to speakers denounce the government's handling of the refugee crisis, the crowd marched through the city to the offices of the Department of Immigation and Multicultural Affairs.

An emergency picket was also held on September 3 outside the immigration department to demand the government end efforts to deport the Bedraie family.

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