While most of the country’s attention was on the newly reinstated Australian Grand Prix, another race was taking place on the streets of Melbourne over the weekend – the race to stop the next federal government from treating refugees and asylum seekers as the political football they have been over the last few decades.

This year’s Palm Sunday Walk for Justice and Refugees focussed on ending mandatory detention, providing permanent protection for those seeking asylum in the country and an increased intake of refugees from Afghanistan.

With Australians now headed to the polls for the federal election on 21 May, guest speakers at Sunday’s rally urged the large crowd to raise their voices and call both major political parties to account for promises broken and made in their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers over the last two decades.

‘The language of promise is the language of ethics,’ said Baptist Minister Reverend Tim Costello. ‘We teach our kids that there will be terrible consequences if you don’t keep your promises. But there’s an ethical override. The promise to the Australian people that no one will set foot [in Australia] if they come by boat – that imposes exaggerated cruelty and if you break that promise the ethical applause would be resounding.

Going into this election, the Morrison Government is still promising us that they will keep open the Pacific offshore detention. We say they must break that promise in the name of ethics. And we demand that Labor makes a promise to close those offshore detention centres, in the name of ethics and the Australian people,’ he said.

‘We are told 26 times in the Bible that Jesus’ face is seen in the stranger – the biblical language for the refugee. That is the face that should be influencing our politics.’

Sr Brigid Arthur CSB, co-founder of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project, also spoke at Sunday’s event, encouraging the crowd to take their cue from the ‘big parties’ who are talking about ‘big ideas and key messages’. She invited the crowd to imagine a different kind of Australia with a series of “what ifs?”:

What if Australia declared an amnesty or an act of grace for all those trapped in the community or for all those who don’t have visas that can give them any security?

What if we could start again with a clean slate? What if an Australian government had the moral compass to outlaw any immigration detention in the future, close all of them and pass a law never to reopen them?

What if all those asking for asylum in Australia were given access to housing and income support, with work rights for all who can work, and proper medical care for those who can’t?

What if Australia never again puts itself in the humiliating position of asking New Zealand or the USA or Canada to take asylum seekers on our behalf?

What if Australia became recognised as a country of compassion and decency?

Adel Salman from the Islamic Council of Victoria called on all Australians to stand up for refugees and make the issue front and centre during this year’s election.

‘There is nothing illegal about coming to Australia by boat,’ he said. ‘That is a lie and it is immoral to use this language but straight away these people are categorised as illegal. Being held in a detention centre connotes that they’re somehow guilty because they are being detained. It is shameful language and shameful characterisation.

Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and we rank 85th per capita in our intake of refugees. That is mind-bogglingly shameful, and we should not allow any government to do this in our name.’

From the State Library, the crowd walked through the CBD towards the Park Hotel in Carlton where, until just recently, nine men seeking asylum in Australia were released by the government after having stayed there for almost a decade.

Sunday’s walk was organised by the Australian Refugee Advocacy Network and was one of a number of walks and vigils being held around the country. A number of local organisations participated in the event including members of Catholic Social Services Victoria, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project, Doctors for Refugees, Faith Communities Council of Victoria, Grandmothers for Refugees (Victoria and Bendigo), the Islamic Council of Victoria, Jesuit Social Services, Melbourne City Churches In Action (MCCIA), Pax Christi Victoria, Refugee Action Collective (RAC), Refugee Council of Australia, Sisters of the Good Samaritan, Victorian Council of Churches, Victorian Afghan Associations Network, Xavier Social Justice Network and more.