Thousands protest for refugees

March 27, 2002


In the biggest show of solidarity with asylum seekers yet seen in Australia, more than 45,000 people attended Palm Sunday marches around the country on March 24, calling for freedom and justice for refugees.

More than half the of them marched in a 30,000-strong protest in Melbourne. Ten thousand rallied in Sydney, in the biggest refugees’ rights protest yet in that city (the march had the slogan “Compassion for refugees. Peace and justice”), 3000 in Adelaide and 1000 in Brisbane. Around 500 marched in a Refugee Rights’ Action Network-organised event in Newcastle. Canberra’s Refugee Action Coalition organised a rally of 350 people, and 150 marched in both Perth and Lismore.

Many of the protesters were propelled into action by a sense of outrage at the policy of mandatory detention, and what the Coalition government has done to defend it.

“[Prime Minister John] Howard is carrying out people trading”, Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan told the Brisbane rally, describing Howard’s refugee policy as “utterly obscene” and the detention centres as “god forsaken places”.

“The government has demonised asylum seekers”, law student Yasmin Ahmed told the Adelaide rally, which was organised by the Woomera Lawyers Group. “Every depiction the government has made of the refugees has turned out to be lies.”

Others pointed to the government’s refusal to tackle real solutions to the refugee crisis. In Melbourne, peace movement activist Jacob Grech said, “Today we are asking the federal government to stop its involvement in the creation of the refugee problem. Australia is running the economic blockade of Iraq.”

In Sydney, ex-ALP minister Tom Uren condemned the “war on terrorism” as a “fundamentalist crusade”.

In Perth, Andrew Hewitt from Community Aid Abroad/Oxfam explained how the “Pacific solution” was skewing Australia’s aid budget. Melbourne Uniting Church’s Alistair McCrae agreed. “The Pacific solution is a Clayton’s solution”, he said.

Many speakers pointed out that opposition to the government’s refugee policies was growing. ALP MP Sharon Grierson, speaking at the Newcastle rally, was heckled when she argued that the Australian people were to blame for Howard’s re-election. Following Grierson’s speech, the rally chairperson told the crowd that the last election was the first time she ever voted against the ALP.

In Melbourne, where the enormous protest was organised by a coalition of refugees’ rights groups, churches and unions under the slogan “Free the refugees!”, the march was loud and confident.

“Lock up [immigration minister Philip] Ruddock, throw away the key — we won’t stop till we free the refugees!”, was one of the most constant chants around a youth contingent led by a truck decorated as a boat, surrounded by drummers and organised by Resistance.

In many cities the protests were upbeat, partly as a result of the bigger-than-expected turnup. The march in Adelaide was led off by a huge heart wrapped in barbed wire, and attended by a sizeable contingent from the Afghan community, who chanted, clapped and sang their way through the CBD.

The atmosphere was markedly different during the Sydney march as protesters followed organisers request, enforced by marshals, to keep the march silent.

At the rally beforehand speakers were met by cheering and clapping. “Our voice must become louder and louder in defence of the poor and those who have no voice”, Sister Susan Connolly from the Mary McKillop institute told the rally, adding that people should not adopt a “gentle” approach to seeking change but rather should be prepared to be “strident”.

Everywhere, protesters were determined to act in solidarity with the refugees. “The only [English] word children [in Woomera detention centre] know”, Ahmed told the Adelaide rally, “is freedom.”

[This article was compiled with the help of Jody Betzien and Anne O’Casey in Melbourne, Simon Tayler in Sydney, Leslie Richmond in Adelaide, Robyn Marshall in Brisbane, Kathy Newnham in Newcastle and Chris Latham in Perth.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
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