The 2017 Palm Sunday Rally on 9 April commenced at Hyde Park in Sydney with a mostly positive crowd of about 4,000 supporters of refugees incarcerated in Australian detention centres, and gained momentum with some fabulous speakers. 

Xuyen Pho, Salvation Army National Secretary and a Vietnam refugee from the late 1970’s, reminisced from his time coming to Australia. “No one seeking asylum gets on a leaky boat without desperation  –  ask yourself what drives someone to travel to an unknown destination without a compass in an open sea and without reliable navigation?” he asked rhetorically.

“Banning people seeking refuge and asylum will divide our rich and vibrant society  –  freedom, tolerance and fairness is what will rekindle the old Australian way,” he said.

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Analysing the world today, Sue Wareham, vice-president of the Medical Association for the prevention of War, pointed out that the number of people fleeing in search of safety is unprecedented  –  around 65 million  –  half come from 3 countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

“The catastrophe that’s occurring in Syria demonstrates the human war cost in a region that Australia helped to destabilise in 2003 and where we still support the violence that is occurring,” she said.

“As we pour billions of dollars into war-making, how many refugees from those areas will Australia accept?” She further added.

Sue concluded her address by stating that together we must redouble our efforts for the sake of refugees and asylum seekers, and for the sake of those caught up in war zones and those whose lives are threatened by the new wars that are looming.

Looking at the local scene, Mark Morey, Secretary of Unions NSW said “No one should be held in indefinite mandatory detention, no matter who they are.”

Referring to the Australian Union movement always taking the high road on humanitarian issues, he added, “From Doc Evatt at the United Nations through to the unions that fought South African apartheid. We must continue to take a high road. We need to re-politicise our communities in global politics.”

The writer of this article left Apartheid South Africa in 1973 to come to Australia, the ‘lucky country’.

Mark added to his address some very wise words: ““This march was initially a peace march  –  the way to stop mass dislocation is for countries to work together to maintain peace across the world.”

There were groups from many backgrounds and ethnicities all displaying their banners and flags. The atmosphere was almost at a party level marching to Circular Quay with the crowds chanting in unison “Refugees are welcome here”; “Bring them here – Let them stay”.

Marching down Macquarie Street to Circular Quay.

There was however one group which chanted through a powerful megaphone “Syria for the Syrians”. Although at the time it was not clear which Syrians they were barracking for, they were certainly a strong vocal group unto themselves.

In attempting to clarify the whole situation, Dr Anas Natfaji, President of the Australians for Syria Association, stated, “We were informed about the intention of a pro-Assad group to hijack the Palm Sunday rally event to their own interest.”

After explaining how Bashar Al Assad has always been at the centre of the Syrian conflict, Dr Natfaji said: “I have heard from friends who attended the Palm Sunday rally about how rude and confrontational the pro-Assad group was in their demonstration.”

Arriving at Circular Quay, some the Syrian Assad supporters placed their flags squarely in front of the Jewish banner, seemingly ignoring the fact that unity is for everyone. Supporters of ‘Jews for Refugees’ felt the brunt of the confrontation.

Fortunately, a Settlement Services representative came to the rescue by explaining to the Syrians that everyone was there to support refugees.

Finally, several Syrian women apologised for the behaviour of some from their group. What a pity it was that some people saw fit to bring their own issues to such an important event.

On a sobering note, Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition ended the day with some pertinent remarks about the intolerable conditions of refugees on both Nauru and Manus Island.

“Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that Donald Trump will honour his US resettlement deal for refugees is looking more and more doubtful” he said.

“A majority of Australians now say detention of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island should end” he added. “Join us to step up the pressure  –  we can do better: Bring them here”.