Thousands of people turned out for the Palm Sunday rallies across Australia to oppose the Coalition’s brutal treatment of refugees. The 2000 people in Canberra made it the biggest-ever refugee rally in the nation’s capital.

In every capital city there was a sizable representation from church congregations. In Sydney, 13 unions were represented in the Unions for Refugees contingent among the 5000 protesters.

Significantly, since the death of asylum seeker Reza Barati on Manus Island in February, there are the first signs of a break with the bi-partisan support Labor has given to the Coalition on refugee policy. Sue Lines, a Western Australian Labor Senator told the Perth rally, “A number of Labor politicians are now speaking out. What we want to do within Labor is to create a movement for change.”

It is the movement outside parliament that will be crucial to the fight for change inside Labor and to force change in government policies. The broad support for the rallies show the movement is growing.

While Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott try to portray Operation Sovereign Borders as the stand out success of the Coalition, the truth is that the contradictions of offshore processing are growing sharper by the day.

Nauru’s announcement that it will not resettle refugees has punched a huge hole in the policy. It is a hole that Morrison has hurriedly tried to paper over by suggesting that Cambodia might resettle refugees.

Manus Island crisis

Meanwhile the crisis on Manus Island won’t go away. Every revelation of the horror of the attack on the asylum seekers is a reminder of the lies Morrison has told and of the government’s attempts to cover-up for the killers of Reza Barati who remain at large (and still employed by Transfield) on the island.

Morrison tries to pretend it is business as usual, but more than two months after Reza’s death, the government is still unable to re-introduce local security staff into the Manus Island detention centre.

It is unlikely that the government will be able to transfer any more asylum seekers there in the foreseeable future. The inability to use Manus Island is another huge blow to the offshore processing regime.

The contradictions are just as obvious over processing of asylum claims. On the one hand, the government is anxious to show that processing is happening and claims that processing has started on both Nauru and Manus Island. But the first successful refugee assessments on either island will immediately raise the question of where the refugees are going to be resettled.

PNG has said it is willing to resettle refugees, but there are still no laws to allow resettlement and the tensions around Manus Island rule out any possibility of resettlement there.

Even if asylum seekers are rejected, there are many that cannot be returned to their home countries: those from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to name a few.

The Manus crisis and Nauru’s refusal to resettle makes it far more likely that asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus will eventually be brought to Australia—just as they were under the Howard government.

That’s why Cambodia matters so much to the government. Unless Morrison can find somewhere willing to resettle refugees, a central plank of Operation Sovereign Borders—that offshore asylum seekers will never be settled in Australia—will collapse.

But Cambodia is a long way from being a done deal. The regional coordinator for the UNHCR recently warned the government that a “Cambodia solution” would violate the Refugee Convention.

On another front, High Court action to determine whether babies born to asylum seekers in Australia have a right to make protection claims in Australia is preventing Morrison sending asylum families with new-borns to Nauru. It is yet another potential obstacle to Morrison’s offshore detention strategy.

In March, the Uniting Church wrote to Morrison offering to look after all the unaccompanied minors on Christmas Island to prevent them being sent to Nauru.

Behind his bragging about “stopping the boats”, Morrison is more vulnerable than he seems. Over the next few weeks, there will be action to mark 100 days since Reza Barati’s death. Refugee week in June will see more meetings, mobilizations, marches and protests to maintain the campaign’s momentum. It is more important than ever to keep the pressure on: offshore processing can be beaten.

Now is the time to get involved—contact the Refugee Action group in your city.

Photo: Laura Krazovitsky

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