Hundreds of people across the northern rivers last night held candlelight vigils in support of victims of the Syrian refugee crisis and called on the federal government to urgently boost its intake of those fleeing war-torn countries.
‘Light the Dark Northern Rivers’ events in solidarity with the refugees were held in Murwillumbah, Byron Bay, Lismore and Ballina, while around 10,000 people attended a similar vigil in Sydney.
Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell attended the gathering outside Lismore City Hall, where a large crowd came out in a show of solidarity with refugees.
Richmond Greens candidate Dawn Walker, who joined more than 100 people at the Murwillumbah event, said her party has called on the Abbott government ‘to accept an emergency intake of 20,000 Syrian refugees and contribute $150 million in funding for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in response to the refugee situation in Europe’.
NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley yesterday proposed that NSW accept at least 5,000 refugees as an emergency response to the unfolding crisis, saying the state could accommodate ‘at least half of a one-off intake of 10,000 displaced persons’.
At the Byron Bay vigil, around 50 people gathered at Main Beach where many spoke passionately in support of accepting more refugees.
Mullumbimby GP, Dr Oscar Serrallach, said that ‘as a society we make decisions motivated by fear when it comes to crises like Syria’.
‘We need to be motivated by kindness and oneness, we are one global family. In seeking to help refugees we are helping our own families,’ Dr Serrallach said.
Offer a bed
Northern rivers social activist Wendy Royston, who has set up a Facebook page, Northern Rivers Welcomes Refugees, said ‘Go to the page and offer a bed in your home’.
‘Let’s show the refugees and Abbott what northern rivers compassion looks like,’ she said.
‘By offering this publicly we can put pressure on the Abbott government to show that our humanity will shine despite the darkness he insists on bringing to this issue.’
Well-known born-and- bred Byron local Gaelle Greymorning, said ‘Many Australians watching this disaster unfold feel helpless and want to know how to assist’.
‘People in this region are talking of opening their homes to house refugees and offer ongoing care,’ Ms Greymorning said.
‘The Byron community has a long history of altruism and activism. We know this country can take thousands more than the Abbott government is stating can come here.
‘We can do more and we must do more. Let’s keep all refugees in our hearts, including those suffering in detention in Nauru and Manus Island. We need a compassionate response to all refugees,’ she said.
Local activist Harsha Prabhu said ‘Australia can and must do more to help refugees. And Northern Rivers residents are ready to do their bit to help.
Another activist said “We have seen the photos of the drowned children; heard the cries of the desperate. How can we stay unmoved?’
‘This crisis is a defining moment for our civilisation. It challenges our humanity and inspires us to respond with generosity.
‘Even the Pope has called for urgent action, for churches, parishes and homes to welcome refugees. Australia needs to do more. We have enough land, food and resources to be able to share with everybody.
Rejuvenate with refugees
In a Facebook post, musician and activist Paul Joseph suggested refugees could help rejuvenate small towns and villages in regional Australia just as the Aquarius Festival helped pump new energy into Nimbin in 1973.
The festival seeded the sustainability movement in the rainbow region of north eastern NSW.
Mr Joseph said ‘Whole new local economies would enrich many dying rural areas at a small fraction of the expense we undergo today.’
Byron shire activists are planning an information day at Byron Community Centre on Sunday 27 September, featuring the award-winning documentary Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and a Q&A session with an Afghan refugee and a caseworker from Nauru.
Funds raised will go to Communify, a Brisbane organisation helping refugees.
Mr Prabhu said ‘Refugee numbers are staggering: UNHCR estimates four million refugees from Syria; two million from Iraq. This is the largest forced movement of people since WWII.’
‘How will we respond as a global community? Are there long term solutions to the refugee crisis?’
‘Australia’s response to this crisis is an international scandal: Australia spends more than double (US$2,100 million) on locking up refugees in detention centres, including refugees fleeing from persecution in Syria, than the UN budget for Syria (US$931 million).’
‘And let’s not forget the recent surge in refugees is largely a symptom of US and her allies, including Australia, meddling in the affairs of countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen, to name just a few.’
‘And no one wants to talk about Palestinian refugees, who, by UNRAWA accounts, amount to five million, many of them living in refugee camps in war-torn Syria.’
Mr Prabhu said ‘To truly address this crisis we need to stop bombing countries and stop spending billions on the military industrial complex and spend it on people, on families, on community.’
Another speaker at the Byron rally said ‘To truly address this crisis we need to stop bombing countries and stop spending billions on the military industrial complex and spend it on people, on families, on community.’
Ms Walker said ‘many of us in the northern rivers have been moved by the Syrian refugee crisis and in particular, heart wrenching photograph of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi who drowned trying to escape the war’.
‘His body washing up on the shore has quickly come to represent the unfolding tragedy in Syria, and our responsibility to help,’ she said.
‘We lit a candle to remember Aylan, we stood together in solidarity with people across the world who are forced to ask for protection from countries like ours.
‘The message of the night was that our government’s inaction does not represent us, and that Australia says welcome to refugees fleeing for their lives.
‘Yesterday the Abbott government announced that it is prepared to “step up to the plate” and take more Syrian refugees.
‘But this was more smoke and mirrors from this prime minister because what PM Abbott really meant is that this government is prepared to trade one fleeing family for another, rather than respond to this devastating humanitarian crisis and offer safety to more people.
‘There are more people fleeing conflict in the world than ever before. The Abbott government’s refusal to welcome more families shows a breathtaking lack of understanding of this global crisis that we are facing.
‘The war in Syria is complex and there is no simple solution. But what is clear, is that dropping more bombs and ignoring the millions of people who are fleeing for their lives is not a solution at all. Standing by and doing nothing to ease this crisis is not an option,’ Ms Walker said.
She said the government also should grant asylum to Syrian refugees who are currently locked up in our detention centres on Nauru or Manus Island.
Meanwhile, Mr Foley offered his bipartisan support to the Baird government to accelerate the intake and relieve the suffering of those fleeing war and persecution.
‘Australia has a proud history of stepping up to the international arena in times of crisis, and NSW should now be prepared to stand with those fleeing the Syrian crisis.’ he said.
‘With a large Syrian community in Sydney, I’ve heard first-hand the stories of horror and fear for loved ones seeking safety.’