Standing alone as thousands of protesters passed him on Swanston Street in Melbourne’s CBD, Kabil Kumar held steady against Melbourne’s stormy Palm Sunday weather to hoist a red and yellow flag depicting a tiger jumping through a circle of bullets.
The flag is a symbol of the armed struggle for recognition of Sri Lanka’s long persecuted ethnic Tamils.
The 29-year-old hasn’t seen his family since he left Sri Lanka more than a decade ago, arriving in Australia by boat in 2007. He spent 19 months on Christmas Island undergoing an extensive security clearance process.
“It is like a jail there,” he said. “I am [protesting] for all those refugees who are still there.”
Mr Kumar is one of the thousands of Melburnians who gathered outside the State Library to protest the federal government’s treatment of asylum seekers.
The Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees was organised by a coalition of advocacy networks as part of a wave of demonstrations held in 16 locations across the country. The event was endorsed by 150 organisations, including groups representing health workers, academics, teachers, unions and city councils, as well as religious communities.
The Palm Sunday event included an interfaith panel, featuring speeches from Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious leaders.
“We all have one thing in common, and that is we all believe in human rights,” Rabbi Kim Ettlinger told the crowd huddled beneath umbrellas.
It was the fourth consecutive year the rally had taken place on Palm Sunday.
“I’ve been involved for this for far more years than I want to have been,” comic and TV personality Corrine Grant told those assembled. “But I will keep coming back.”
“The suffering that these people are going through, no human being should have to go through,” she added.
Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers has been a focus of controversy since 2001. The UN has deemed the policy unlawful and human rights groups have condemned the conditions of the detention facilities.
“I’m disappointed that we are here again today,” said Jane Wiley, a former teacher on Nauru.
Australia is the only country in the world to detain children indefinitely, a practice the UN considers a form of torture. Ms Wiley fought back tears as she spoke about her memories of the “traumatised” children she taught on Nauru.
“I’ve spoken about their dull eyes, their bandaged wrists, their lips scarred with the marks of needles . . . While I can speak and bare witness to their suffering, I will.
“I still grieve for those brutalised young lives.”
The protesters were united in their call for the closure of Australia’s offshore detention facilities, an increase in its refugee intake and an end to the “turn back the boats” policy.
Also addressing the rally, Daniel Webb, of the Human Rights Law Centre, said that despite the Federal Government’s refugee swap deal with the US, it remained the responsibility of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to ensure that these refugees were resettled.
“After five months, we still have no plan for what the government will do for the people who are left behind,” he said.
“You would have to be an absolute fool to sit back and hope for the best from a guy like [US President] Donald Trump,” he said.
In the aftermath of Mr Trump’s unilateral action in Syria, the Refugee Advocacy Network’s Chris Breen said it was “now more than ever” that Australia needed to amend its refugee policies.
“The bombs only bring more refugees,” he said. “What we really need in response to the horrors in Syria is for Australia to stop shutting the door, to stop turning back boats, to increase the refugee intake, [to bring here] those Syrian refugees who are on Manus [Island] and Nauru.”
Over the course of the day, the hashtag #LetThemStay was tweeted more than 10,000 times.
Miranda Armstrong, who has attended all four of the Palm Sunday refugee protests, said the rain would not stop her from attending. She remained “hopeful” that such protests would ultimately bring about change.
“There’s a lot that dampens that hope but if you don’t keep coming out, keep writing letters, then no change will happen. So I’m hopeful,” she said.
The latest poll on Australia’s immigration policy conducted by Roy Morgan Research appeared to underpin her optimism, revealing that a majority of people in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania now support bringing detainees on Manus and Nauru to Australia.
“We need to keep mobilising and speaking out, because it works,” said Mr Breen.