Support for refugees is on the rise

The good turnout to national rallies on August 27 and 28 shows the refugee rights' movement is starting to gain political ground. A number of pro-asylum seeker groups are forming to force an end to the cruel policy of locking up refugees in offshore detention.

The 3000-5000-strong Sydney rally was characterised by home-made placards — a good sign of broader involvement — with many families marching the long route from Town Hall to the Opera House either pushing prams or helping their toddlers.

Prominent too were the groups Grandmothers against Detention, Mums for Refugees, Doctors for Refugees, Teachers for Refugees, Love Makes a Way, Amnesty International, Students for Refugees and People Just Like Us.

Similar numbers attended the Melbourne rally, with rally-goers there saying many people were clapping and cheering loudly from the footpath.

The rally in Adelaide, called at short notice, attracted more than 400 people to Parliament House. They stood while the names of the imprisoned refugees in Manus Island and Nauru detention centres were read out and written onto heart cut-outs.

Sizeable actions were also organised in many regional centres. In Newcastle, about 400 people rallied, including a high turnout of medical students.

In the lead up to these rallies, Love Makes A Way had organised actions at more than 50 Labor and Coalition MP's offices involving people on the their way to school and work.

These rallies, divestment campaigns, various stunts and new groups organising show a turning point in the campaign. It is having an effect on the establishment.

Wilson Security, feeling the pressure, has just announced it will not renew its contract to provide security at the offshore detention centres.

The Guardian's release of the Nauru Files — which exposed reports of sexual assault and children being physically abused, often by Wilson's guards — has shown more people the realities of life in detention, thereby helping build the campaign to force a change.

It is now becoming increasingly common for former detention centre workers to defy policy and become whistleblowers. They risk multiple years in prison, under the Border Force Act, but they feel obliged to do so.

Doctors Against the Border Force Act has launched a challenge in the High Court to these gag laws and Doctors for Refugees in Sydney has called for a protest march on November 4.

The establishment is starting to get worried. It wants to defend the Fortress Australia policy while, at the same time, trying to find a way of appeasing a section of the movement.

Well known figures such as Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne and John Menadue have come to their aid with a conservative compromise: “A solution to our refugee crisis”, printed last month in the Age, argued that closing the detention centres and bringing the asylum seekers to Australia was most urgent and that accepting boat turnbacks was necessary.

This conservative position needs to be vocally opposed by the refugee movement.

To accept boat turnbacks as legitimate means abrogating responsibility for all those who seek asylum here. It is the equivalent of saying, “Go and die somewhere else”.

There have been cases, this year, of the Australian Navy turning boats of asylum seekers around at sea without assessing their refugee claims.

As long as there are compelling reasons for people to flee their homes — war, climate change, torture and persecution — they will flee.

Brennan et al's “compromise” is not a humane solution. It lets the establishment off the hook by removing any obligation Australia, a wealthy developed country, has to accept asylum seekers. Really, it is another way of maintaining Fortress Australia.

The refugee rights movement has become stronger, but it needs to become much bigger if we are going to be able to end the cruel bipartisanship.

We need a complete change of approach, one that welcomes refugees however they arrive, including by boat, and to provide safe pathways for refugees to get here from Indonesia and Malaysia. The recent rallies marked a new stage in the campaign, one that we need to build on.

[Zebedee Parkes is an activist in the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition and a member of the Socialist Alliance. He is also a film maker.]