If oddballs, fanatics and rabble-rousers were anticipated, they were noted by their absence.
The packed marchers were an orderly lot, and at most required only two police motorcycle outriders. And shoppers stood still on pavements to wave and clap. For these were solid citizens invading the city shopping area in their hundreds on a Saturday afternoon, stopping the traffic. The marchers, which included some young people, were mostly Mums and Dads in their later years who had taken to protesting because they felt so strongly about the way Australia is treating boat refugees (aka asylum seekers). They deserted their spades and gardens or an afternoon of sport in order to make their views known publicly. Mums and Dads, hats firmly pulled on and wearing sound walking shoes, marched resolutely around the city, joined by a person in a wheelchair and people who needed a walking stick to make the distance. People of many diverse opinions and allegiances, they had come together to protest because they were so appalled by the current government's treatment of boat refugees. Horror at what is happening was all around in the air, together with a quiet, simmering sense of outrage.
Therefore the speakers weren't rabble-rousers, they were instead an Anglican dean, a Moderator of the Uniting Church and a human rights lawyer, who knows only too well what goes on. They were joined by a writer - once without much inkling of how boat refugees are treated by Australia – he visited Nauru by happenstance and was so shocked by what he saw and heard, he wrote a book about it. Aborigine elder Sam Watson welcomed the marchers to country. The hundreds who listened had come to publicly demonstrate their deep dismay over the current government's policy to place boat refugees in offshore detention camps. Placards read 'Not in my name'. Others called for an end to children being held in detention; several called for the government's offshore detention camps, such as Nauru, to be shut down.
The Very Reverend Dr Peter Catt, Anglican Dean of Brisbane, sees the current situation as a sort of war, 'There is a military aspect to the Abbott government's attack on asylum seekers who come by boat. It is indeed a kind of war. Some of us want this war to cease.' He called on people 'to make it clear to both government and opposition that their oppressive policies are completely unacceptable'.
Author Mark Isaac spoke of his own experiences on Nauru. In his book, 'The Undesirables', he recalls the July 2013 Nauru riots and how, for many Australians, this proved that asylum seekers were dangerous and destructive, and that harsher immigration measures were needed. But Mark Isaacs worked with the men in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre for 10 months and writes that the riot was an inevitable outcome of a cruel and degrading policy and a reaction to a build-up of injustices the men had suffered throughout their incarceration in Nauru.
The Moderator of the Uniting Church in Queensland, the Reverend Kaye Ronalds, issued a challenge to the Federal Government. She said the church was still waiting to help. In March the Uniting Church in Australia wrote to the government offering sanctuary for all children without parents held on Christmas Island. The church had learned they were scheduled for imminent deportation to offshore facilities on Nauru. The church's offer was turned down by the government although the church has been directly involved in the protection and care of child asylum seekers without parents since the 1980s. The national director of Uniting Justice Australia, the Reverend Elenie Poulos recently stated that Nauru was entirely unsuitable for all asylum seekers, and especially for children without parents. In October last year, the UNHCR visited the detention centre on Nauru and recommended its immediate closure.
'The recent tragedy on Manus Island has highlighted the complete inadequacy of these off-shore centres for the safety and wellbeing of those seeking asylum,' said Rev. Poulos. 'The Uniting Church will not stand by and watch as the lives of children are decimated by brutal government policies.'
Some children have already been removed but the Uniting Church's offer remains. A New South Wales church of another denomination offered accommodation for children detained at Sydney's Villawood detention centre but this was also refused.
At the rally the Rev Ronalds urged the government to work with other regional governments to provide safe and realistic pathways to Australia, to increase humanitarian intake and provide permanent protection visas to people found to be refugees or owed protection, according to international law. Also she sought increased practical assistance for asylum seekers, funded legal support reinstated, people allowed to work, and the use of positive language when referring to asylum seekers. And she asked for honesty in presenting the issues. The government needed to address a hardness of heart.
Benedict Coyne, of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, asked 'Why is it we, as Australians, descendants of boat people and land thieves ourselves, are so incredibly terrified of the thought of desperate and persecuted people arriving by boat? SEE separate story.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald (8/1/14), most Australians think asylum seekers who arrive by boat are not genuine refugees and there was strong support for the Abbott government to treat boat arrivals more harshly. It quoted a recent nationwide opinion poll by UMR Research showing 59 per cent of people thought most boat arrivals were not genuine refugees.
If you are fleeing for your life there is no time to stop to get a passport. Some may deliberately destroy their documents? Some may be future terrorists? Australia has police and intelligence services on hand to investigate. The real cause of such aversion may lie in fear of economic insecurity and that 'they' may take houses, jobs, and so on, at the expense of Australians; such fears at times whipped up into a froth by political manipulators. This in spite of the fact Australia has prospered as a result of migration and continues to need people. It makes no sense, but then fear seldom does.