This article was published by The Vocal on September 7, 2015.
Tonight, dozens of community action groups and tens of thousands of people across Australia will turn out onto the streets in cities and towns to tell the Abbott Government, and the world, they welcome refugees.
“The image of the Syrian child’s lifeless body washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach brought the world to its knees. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he was just three years old… We will shine a light in the dark to remember Aylan Kurdi. We will stand in solidarity with people across the world who are forced to ask for protection, and in protest of Australia’s abandonment of the world’s most desperate.”
That’s from the GetUp! call to action for tonight’s #LightTheDark events. Thousands have already pledged to light a candle to show their support, either in person or online. A similar #LightTheDark mass vigil was previously held in 2014 to honour the life of Reza Berati, an Iranian asylum seeker who was murdered in the Australian run detention centre on Manus Island and to honour the many asylum seekers who have suffered under our watch.
After more than four years of civil war, Syrians have been forced to leave their homes in their millions, most recently desperately trying to reach the European Union. Like little Aylan, many have died in the attempt. Meanwhile, the Abbott Government has been actively turning its back on the world’s refugees. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has echoed Amnesty’s calls for Australia to provide refuge to a further 20,000 Syrians.
I want to do something. Will this make a difference though?
That question was quietly, and sincerely, posed by Jess on the Melbourne #LightTheDark Facebook page. And it drew equally genuine responses. It’s a question we all ask ourselves – is there anything I can do in the face of this horror to make a difference? Is it enough to join a street movement? Will anyone listen? Will anything change?
Many shared their experiences of how they became politically active, why they believe small actions can have positive consequences, and how those actions can force governments to listen to the people. Lucy said she felt empowered after marching for the first time about four years ago.
“That’s what I see this [#LightTheDark] event as being about,” she said. “I think there’s something beautiful about gathering together alongside others who have been struggling on this issue, if for nothing else but to collectively express that ‘these people [the government] don’t represent us’.”
Angie also believes collective action can make a difference.
“It’s important we show the government and the public that we care because these decision makers CAN make a difference – but they won’t unless they have a reason or are pushed to. I live by the fact that doing something, is always better than doing nothing. I mean, I know I first started to care and take interest in the issue when I saw and listened to other passionate people.”
In the last fortnight alone, Australians have shown people power possesses just that: power. Just 30 minutes after protesters forced the cancellation of a press conference about a planned Border Force operation that would search for people without valid visas, Victoria Police announced the whole operation was being called off. The community outcry was widespread and politicians could not ignore it. It didn’t take long for social media to kick in and re-brand the whole thing to Border Farce.
The ASRC claimed victory in June when they rallied concerned citizens against the Use of Force Bill that would have given “detention guards virtually unchecked power to use force against asylum seekers, largely without recourse”.
There are plenty in Australia who feel compelled to act in support of refugees, and who believe their actions can make a difference. Here are some thoughts expressed by people on the Melbourne #LightTheDark Facebook page, about why they’re taking action:
“Just desperate to do something…”
“[T]his is a start to what we can do”
“The tide is turning. Our elected leaders can no longer harm these desperate people for political gain. Australians are compassionate and welcoming people. Let’s now make our government reflect our will.”
“I’m not really the rallying type, but I think we’re at a point where something has to change with our dire political positioning on asylum seeker issues.”
“Anyone free on Monday night who does not agree with our country’s stance on refugees? Come and show respect to those people who are forced from their homes and then turned away from ours.”