Student activists are driving Canberra’s Refugee Campaign

Credit: Jayne Hoschke

Photography: Jayne Hoschke

John is a member of ANU RAC and the Steering Committee of Canberra RAC.

Refusing to let the stormy forecast dampen their spirits, thousands of people – from Canberra, Queanbeyan, Yass and the NSW South Coast – descended en masse to Civic Square at 1pm on 9 April for the Palm Sunday Rally. United by their passion, the crowd gathered to call on the government to welcome refugees and end the offshore detention regime and, ultimately, demand humane treatment for refugees and people seeking asylum. The Canberra Refugee Action Committee estimates the total number of those in attendance reached 2,500 – a significant feat that highlights the strong community support for the cause.  

The rally heard a rousing speech from St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia CEO John Falzon, who called on Australians to ‘resist the politics of cruelty and replace it with the politics of love’. Following this was Jamila Ahmadi, who gave her account of journeying to Australia as a refugee, her time in detention, and, eventually, her road to Australian citizenship. Ahmadi, who now holds a degree in International and Development Studies from the University of Adelaide, declared that she was ‘the product of giving refugees a go’. Ahmadi spent a total of three months in onshore detention; refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are now pushing four years.

At 12.30pm, students from ANU’s Refugee Action Committee (RAC) gathered in Petrie Plaza alongside contingents of fellow students from the University of Canberra and ACU, as well as unions, faith groups, LGBTQIA+ activists, mums and academics. In recent months, university groups have become cornerstones of a campaign that is otherwise perceived by some to be the domain of a particular demographic comprised of grandparents and retirees. On Palm Sunday, students delivered critical energy on the ground – leading chants with a unique fervour that accompanies an unquenched thirst for justice. Cheers of applause from the crowd met them as they marched with other contingents into Civic Square.                                 

Not only do students imbue rallies and marches with a much-needed vitality, but they are also at the very forefront of organising for the campaign. A 48 Hour Vigil for Refugees preceded the Palm Sunday rally, coordinated by a team of Creative Activism volunteers – a group which includes several students from across Canberra. Others contributed their time and expertise to running the Vigil, which featured artworks from refugees, a film night, live performances and other activities.

Additionally, ANU has played host to several campaign events including a recent protest meeting calling on the ACT’s federal Members of Parliament to break their silence on the injustices of offshore detention. The campus will also be the site of a national conference for the Australian Refugee Action Network, taking place on 20 – 21 May. The conference is the first of its kind in Australia and will enable thousands of activists from around the country to work together with a nationally coordinated strategy.

The proximity of student activism to these sorts of developments gives us a crucial insight into what it takes to run an effective, high-profile campaign. Some believe that students today are less passionate, even apathetic, compared to previous generations. I disagree. Student voices are increasingly being dismissed and derided, breeding a defeatist attitude that prevents many from speaking up at all. This makes our position at ANU, arguably the centre of the national refugee rights campaign, even more valuable. Here, students have a voice. Here, we are unafraid to make it heard.