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Asylum seeker protest models 'habits of the heart'

  • 15 April 2014

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people across Australia took to the streets of our capital cities to protest the Federal Government's cruel treatment of people seeking asylum in our country.

Although linked with church services in various denominations, the Palm Sunday marches included people from diverse faiths and no faith. Those on the streets ranged from young children to the elderly. The march itself was conducted in a peaceful, suitably solemn mood. This wasn't a group of radicals trying to overthrow the government — it was Grandma and Grandpa, Mum and Dad and the kids, wanting to make a statement to a callous political elite.

Yet the protests drew barely a mention in our mainstream press. The Guardian published a report estimating a crowd size of around 6000 in Melbourne, while the headline on The Age website said, 'Hundreds rally for refugees'. I watched and took pictures as the crowd marched past me down Swanston Street in Melbourne for an hour, and if someone counted only 6000 people they were counting three heads for every person.

Sitting in the background to these protests is the survey earlier this year that found around 60 per cent of people in Australia believe we don't treat asylum seekers harshly enough. That same proportion of people, it seems, are completely unaware of the torturously inhumane process we already put asylum seekers through.

The biggest issue we face with asylum seekers is that we have a minority — albeit a larger minority than our politicians and mainstream press seem to want to admit — that are informed and aware of the issues, and are committed to finding a more humane response to the issue. And we have a majority that is uninformed, and uninterested, and is committed to whichever solution best removes asylum seekers from their line of sight so they can go back to enjoying the latest episode of Masterchef.

We can blame the media for the poor coverage of this issue, and for failing to inform people about the terrible conditions asylum seekers face. Yet they know better than us that those stories, even when printed, aren't being read. We can put the blame on asylum seeker advocates for not finding more creative and eye-catching ways to inform people and change their minds. But plenty have been tried and failed, and catchy campaigns on similarly divisive issues such as climate change have also done little to change