Refugees and new migrants feel more isolated and vulnerable following last weekend’s Reclaim Australia rallies, community leaders said.
The anti-Islam rallies on Saturday attracted hundreds of demonstrators nationwide who were protesting against halal certification, sharia law and increased Muslim migration.
Counterprotests were held in several cities, in some cases eclipsing the original rallies.
Edward Solo, vice president of the Federation of African Communities Councils in Australia, said the anti-Islam rallies are “hurtful”.
“It is really a fearful message,” he said.
Solo said many new arrivals will worry that they will be the next targets of the rallies. “It is hurtful to your efforts to rebuild your lives [which were] shattered back home,” he said.
Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said that the protests build on the anti-refugee sentiment that has been stirred up by the government’s hardline border protection policies.
“This is a community that feels like it is under attack, a community that feels isolated and unwelcome,” he said. “Reclaim Australia makes asylum seekers feel more under threat.”
Joe Caputo, chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Council of Australia, was wary of giving the protesters too much publicity, labelling them “a totally isolated fringe group that is insignificant”.
He said demonstrators were “ignorant”, “misinformed” and “out of this world”, pointing to the fact that no mainstream organisations or politicians attended the rallies as evidence that they are in the minority.
Rally against Racism (right) protestors clash with Reclaim Australia protestors at Federation Square in Melbourne on 4 April.
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Rally Against Racism (right) demonstrators clash with Reclaim Australia demonstrators at Federation Square in Melbourne on 4 April. Photograph: Fairfax Media via Getty Images
But chief executive of the Arab Council, Randa Kattan, warned that even small groups can be dangerous.
“In terms of numbers they might be insignificant, but in terms of damage, it is significant,” she said.
Kattan said it “only takes one incident” of racism or hatred to spark simmering tensions. The protesters are “squeaky wheels grabbing attention” in order to exploit existing divisions, she said.
Solo dismissed protesters’ concerns that Australia would consider adopting sharia law, saying that “lacks serious grounds for action”.
“Nothing of that nature can happen now … or in the immediate future,” he said.
Karapanagiotidis has criticised politicians from both sides for not speaking out against the Reclaim Australia rallies, drawing a contrast with German chancellor Angela Merkel who spoke out against ultra rightwing group Pegida by saying members had “hatred in their hearts”.
He said the silence of politicians is “damning”, accusing them of exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment.
Executive director of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, Hass Dellal, said that there is a “fear of the unknown” within the community, and that the rallies “shouldn’t be dismissed”.
He said the best way to overcome that fear is via interfaith initiatives and through open engagement between diverse groups.