Australians have rallied to protest Canberra's policy of detaining migrants and refugees offshore. Around 1,600 people are being detained in Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island on behalf of the Australian state.
At least 5,000 people gathered in Sydney on Saturday to protest the Australian government's policy of keeping refugees and asylum-seekers in detention offshore. The centers were set up after the Australian government decided in 2013 it would no longer process arrivals on Australian territory.
Evan Davis, who worked in Nauru as a teacher for two years, said that what he saw on the island quickly turned him into an activist.
"It's the government's policy on how children are treated there that makes us speak. It's our obligation to speak out against the mental torture, the physical harm, the violence, fear, imprisonment, loss of hope, denial of education, and theft of their childhood," Davis told the DPA news agency.
The Sydney protest coincided with rallies around the country by Doctors for Refugees and comes just a week after the government announced it would introduce legislation imposing a lifetime ban on any refugee attempting to reach Australia by sea.
Rights groups have criticized the government for failing to offer sanctuary to refugees fleeing violence and instead housing them in what the goups have said are inhumane conditions. Amnesty International says mental illness and incidents of self-harm among the asylum seekers, especially children, were common.
Activists in downtown Sydney said the government needs to show compassion. "I am from Germany and I have lived here for 32 years. I do not want a government that commits crimes against humanity," 67-year-old activist Ingrid Zoebe told the DPA news agency. "They keep coming with worse ideas, like lifetime ban for those who tried to come by boat."
Anti-Islam rally against Middle East refugees
The issue of refugees is polarizing in Australia where many support the government's hardline position. Several hundred rallied in suburban Melbourne on Saturday over a plan to house refugees in the neighborhood.
Members of an anti-Islam coalition turned out to voice their objections to 120 Syrian and Iraqi refugees from being placed at a housing facility for elderly citizens in the suburb of Eltham.
"They (the elderly citizens) are a bit concerned about it but they will just wait and see," John Conroy a resident of the aged-care facility told Reuters news agency.
A heavy police presence separated the group from more than 100 pro-refugee activists; previous protests of anti-immigration and pro-immigration groups led to violent clashes.
Under international pressure, the Australian government announced a one-off intake of 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Iraq and Syria, saying that ethnic minorities from those countries would be given priority. But far-right political parties are on the rise including the controversial nativist One Nation party, which won four Senate seats in this summer's national elections.
jar/sms (Reuters, dpa)