Several hundred people took part in a rally and march organised by the Refugee Advocacy Network to demand an end to the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat. MC Pamela Curr introduced a series of strong speakers, including a late addition to the list in the person of Malalai Joya, former member of the Parliament of Afghanistan now in exile:
Her speech can be heard in full in this YouTube video:
Other speakers included Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young:
Amongst other things Senator Hanson-Young said we are not yet anywhere near bringing in a more humane approach to dealing with the needs of asylum seekers. Although the government has now admitted that it does detain children and has undertaken to start to release them ‘over time’, this was a good start, ‘but nowhere near where we need to be.’ She recalled how she came to politics in 2001 over this issue, and with the election of the labor government in 2007 had thought she needed to look for another focus: ‘But since 2007 we have learned pretty quickly that promises are broken.’
She referred to the recent visit of Opposition leader Tony Abbot to Adelaide ‘to whip up fear around having a detention facility that would house families in the Adelaide hills.’ She did not believe there should be mandatory detention at all, ‘but I also do not believe that whipping up fear around the idea of having asylum
seekers in the Adelaide hills … is a responsible thing for a leader to do.’ It was time to take the politics out of it [this issue], there needed to be a consensus of all parties ‘that making politics out of the lives of vulnerable people is not right, it shouldn’t bring you votes, and we all should be a bit bigger than that…’
Next was Michele O’Neil, State Secretary, TCFUA – a union much involved with migrant women in particular:
‘The union that I represent has a proud history of having within its ranks , within its membership, many many people that arrived in Australia as refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.’ But it was not just the TCFUA which benefitted from this diversity, rather the whole country, ‘because the workers of Australia are a migrant people who have joined with our Indigenous population to create the land we have today.’ It was therefore an extraordinary thing that we should be having this debate about how to treat current arrivals when so many of our ancestors, families and neighbours arrived in similar ways. She emphasised the need for a total ban on mandatory detention, notr piecemeal changes to policy. She acknowledged the positive step of the recent announcement about releasing children, but stressed that it was not due to take effect immediately, but by the middle of 2011, and applied only to ‘the majority’. What was there to be fearful of that it should take so long? And what did it mean to say ‘the majority’ rather than all? And the terms under which these people were to be released did not allow them to work, move freely, or choose where to live. ‘This is not living in the community in an normal sense,’ not even a return to the position pre-1993. ‘It is still a very small change to what is a fundamentally unjust and unfair system.’ And why was it needed? What was
driving the fear, paranoia and xenophobia? She read some of the facts regarding the numbers seeking asylum in Australia compared to the rest of the world, eg that in 2009 Australia received 0.6% of asylum seekers worldwide; that of 377,160 applications in 44 industrialised countries Australia received only 6170, which was 1.6%. So ‘this fear is based on inaccurate information and myth …. people that want to divide the people of this country instead of bringing us together.’ And this is also, this is an issue which she and her union care about and speak about: ‘We care about it because it is about the same fundamental issues – if you care about fighting for justice, if you care about people’s rights, if you care about the right for people in the workplace to be treated with dignity and respect and to be safe, you have to care about how it is that we treat people who are fleeing some of the worst and most terrible situations that you can imagine, looking for refuge, looking for asylum, who arrive in our land and who we then lock up…’
Pamela Curr read a message from Tamil refugees still detained in Indonesia (see media release from the support group RISE) in a centre paid for by Australian taxpayers (this message is posted as MP3 on Melbourne Indymedia), before introducing Malalai Joya – see above – who was followed by Hong Lim, State Labor MP and representative at the rally of the Indo-Chinese community:
He had come to Australia as a refugee from Cambodia 40 years ago ‘at a time when everybody was so caring and sharing, but 40 years later I must say that some people will try to break that tradition.’ He referred to the post-WWII arrival of more than one million refugees – ‘ask the Jewish community here’ – and the generosity of Austrlians in raising proportionately more than seven times as much in donations to help Cambodian refugees than the British at the time. But now in BRitain there are more than 80,000 asylum seekers and refugees, ‘and here we 4000 and some people jumping up and down complaining’ with talk of an ‘invasion’. He suggested people should look at Springvale, Richmond and Footscray ‘to see what the
Indo-Chinese [refugees] have proven themselves’. They contribute significantly to the economy and are the link to China, Vietnam and so on. We could not allow politicians to poison our minds, our traditions, our customs, our honour any more ‘We must fight them every inch of the way, because they are wrong. They are wrong.’
Brian Walters SC, Greens candidate for the seat of Melbourne, was the last of the speakers before the march:
He began his address with the words ‘My fellow boat people’ and the opening words of the national
anthem: ‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and [pause] free…’ This was one of the values we proclaim, a love for freedom ‘and when people take is at our word, fleeing unimaginable persecution, and come here asking for our help … we lock them up in mental illness factories in remote places behind razor
wire.’ We also value the rule of law, but have decided that it does not apply to whole areas of the country – the excised regions. He was scornful of those who talk about ‘border protection’ – ‘as if people coming wanting the protection of our borders threaten [them].’ ‘When people come across the sea they bring with
them boundless riches that we can share. They enrich our community and what a great day it will be when we end this evil misery of mandatory detention, which is such a stain on our nation [applause]. And then we can really sing that we can “advance Australia fair”‘.
There followed a march down Swanston Street to Federation Square:
Gilios, himself a West Papuan refugee, spoke of the work of RISE, an organisation supporting Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees, but first asking for a minute’s silence in memory of a young member of his community who had been killed in a car accident a few days before….
Last speaker was Sister Brigid Arthur of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project, who described her visits to young Hazaras in the little-known Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre and families in the Maribyrnong Detention Centre. Her address, which was very compelling, is available as an MP3 on Melbourne Indymedia.
The rally ended with an emphatic statement of the core demand, followed by a lineup of banners: