Last Friday, a large banner hung from the Spire of the Melbourne Art’s Centre as crowds and trucks began moving into motion for White Night.
The words on the banner were barely visible, but many gathered knowing what it meant. The words #LetThemStay hung there with two climbers who’d climbed to the top of that spire in the morning.
That slogan alone has become a three-word summary of people’s desires for humanity toward asylum seekers currently brutalised daily by the Australian government. It’s specifically in response to a recent High Court decision that allows the government to deport 267 asylum seekers, including babies back to Nauru.
The decision was expected by many refugee advocates. When babies like Asha came to the Australian mainland for treatment, sympathetic lawyers like Daniel Webb applied for an injunction for them to stay, buying precious time.
But what we didn’t expect was the response when the decision was handed down. Even before the High Court decision, the faces of many of the babies threatened with deportation were splashed across the front page of the mainstream media and in the wake of the decision, thousands came out to protests and vigils organised all around Australia, cities teaming with empathy.
In Melbourne, activists marched through the city in one of the first protests and sat down in an intersection near the Liberal Party Headquarters, burning the Migration Act as a symbol of defiance against a law that needs to be defied if we’re going to see justice for asylum seekers in this country.
It went beyond this.
With the mood shifting, perhaps in the wake of the images of solidarity and compassion in Europe, churches and trade unions came out in support, offering sanctuary and protection for any asylum seekers threatened with deportation.
Even State Premiers came out offering to take in asylum seekers, in stark contrast to the positions of the Federal leaders of their parties, with both the Liberals and Labor standing by their current policy. The current policy says that no asylum seeker coming by boat can be resettled in Australia.
The strongest point in the #LetThemStay movement has been at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane, where Asha and her parents are being kept. Doctors and nurses working in the hospital have refused to discharge her until there’s a guarantee of being discharged into a safe environment. Hundreds of people kept vigil outside the hospital in support, and on Saturday night, when rumours of Asha’s removal began to circulate and extra Serco guards arrived, the gathered crowd prepared to block her removal, checking cars after reports emerged that Asha would be removed by car with Australian Federal Police.
Since then, Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, has confirmed that Asha will not be immediately deported, but has been moved into Community Detention, with immigration guards keeping watch. This is still detention, and Dutton has vowed that she will be returned to Nauru once all medical issues are dealt with.
It remains to be seen whether refugee supports and medical staff will allow that to happen. Activists are ready to defend asylum seekers from removal at any time around the country and the latest swelling of support means many more will potentially join us, puncturing the long held dominance of anti-refugee sentiment in Australia.