On Sunday 2 April, hundreds of people, young and old, gathered on the steps of the State Library of Victoria for the 2023 Walk for Justice for Refugees, an event that is held each year on Palm Sunday. Walkers came from a wide range of faith backgrounds, community and service organisations, schools and higher education institutions, unions and councils, all showing support and solidarity for refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia.
‘We all know that the fate of a refugee or emigrant is not easy, but … very difficult and tragic,’ said Bishop Mykola Bychok, Eparch for Ukrainian Catholics in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania, who was among the official speakers at the rally.
Saving their lives, they are looking for a better fate for themselves, but they find humiliation, helplessness and sometimes the end of their lives outside their native land. A similar fate is common to many peoples, not only Ukrainian. It is frightening to think, but the Mediterranean Sea becomes a cemetery for about 10,000 refugees from poor African countries every year.
With his homeland still suffering through a devastating war, Bishop Bychok spoke movingly of the ‘fate of emigrants and refugees’ among the Ukranian people.
‘For more than 130 years, a large number of our people have emigrated to Brazil and Argentina, then to Canada and the USA, and after the Second World War to Australia and the countries of Western Europe,’ he said. Today, ‘in just one year of the terrible war, 16 million people left their homes: 8 million internally displaced persons and 8 million displaced around the world.’
He called for prayers and support for those from Ukraine and from places like ‘Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria and Ethiopia, who left their homes due to war or political persecution. Let us remember that the first refugee was Jesus Christ, who was persecuted by King Herod. His parents, the Holy Mother of God and St Joseph, fled from Bethlehem to Egypt to save his life. May the same Lord bless and help all refugees in Australia and around the world.’
Also among the official speakers at the rally, which was emceed by Rev Alexandra Sangster of the Uniting Church, were representatives from the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic faith traditions, independent federal Member for Kooyong Dr Monique Ryan, and speakers and musicians who have come to Australia seeking refuge and asylum.
Representatives from Catholic Social Services Victoria, Jesuit Social Services, Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum (CAPSA), the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project (BASP), and a number of Catholic congregations, parishes and schools also joined the rally and walk.
Early in the afternoon, as people were gathering at the library, a small group met for a reflection led by Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ. ‘Today is a day of solidarity with refugees in their pain and resilience. It is also about us and about our commitment to refugees,’ he said.
For many years we have come here on this day to march. Over that time, the number of refugees has grown. More die in boats, live in camps, are dumped in hulks and hotels, languish on our islands, are locked in prisons, are treated brutally in order to deter others, are left without support, and are separated from their families. Yet they live; still they hope and pray. And like the women by the cross, we still hang in, in solidarity with them.
Walking behind a wide banner reading ‘Justice for Refugees’, held by faith leaders from different traditions, the march processed from the State Library along Swanston Street, and then along Bourke Street to Parliament House gardens. There, the crowd heard from more speakers and musicians, including Margaret Sinclair from Refugee Action Collective, who spoke about her recent trip to Indonesia to investigate the conditions of 14,000 men and women ‘who have been languishing there in limbo’ for more than a decade. ‘People can’t live without hope,’ she said.
Long-time advocate for refugees and people seeking asylum, Sr Brigid Arthur CSB, coordinator of BASP, said the important thing for this year’s march is ‘to raise the consciousness of the Australian people, that we haven’t won the battle to get justice for asylum seekers.’
‘In spite of the fact that the Australian government has given permanent visas to those who are on SHEV [Safe Haven Enterprise Visas] or TPVs [Temporary Protection Visas]—that’s one group of 19,000—there’s at least another 12,000 people who haven’t had any justice, and who still have no certainty or security around their future and, on the whole, no income to survive. So we want money and help for people who haven’t got visas, and we want a real chance to get a permanent visa for everybody.’
In closing, Marie Hapke, convenor of the Refugee Advocacy Network and chair of the organising committee for the Walk for Justice, pointed to signs of hope and encouraged those gathered to persevere, saying, ‘There have been some things happening recently that we can feel positive about, but there’s so much more that we all need to be working towards. It’s been a long campaign, advocating for refugees and asylum seekers, and it goes on. It’s wonderful that you’ve all come along today to support the Palm Sunday march. It’s very important that everybody keeps working to solve these issues.’
As Fr Andy said in his reflection, ‘The story of Palm Sunday does not end in the tomb. It ends on Easter Sunday. Jesus the eternal refugee rises from death, finds a home, promises a home, and calls on us to make a home for the homeless. His rising proves that life is stronger than death, love stronger than apathy, freedom than prison bars, doors opened than doors slammed shut.’
Photography by Fiona Basile.
Melbourne Catholic22 March 2022