Hundreds of people gathered Thursday to protest a ruling that could see more than 260 asylum seekers – including 37 babies born in Australia – deported to a detention center on Nauru island.
Protesters met in front of the Sydney Department of Immigration and chanted 'Let them stay', SBS News reported.
The rally came amid online campaigning with the #LetThemStay hashtag, launched after the High Court ruled Wednesday in favor of the legality of the government’s offshore immigration detention policy.
Protests were also organized Thursday evening in Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle and Perth, with more scheduled for Friday through Monday.
Anglican churches countrywide also announced Thursday that they would use to the historic concept of sanctuary to offer shelter to asylum seekers at risk of deportation to Nauru, where conditions have been described as appalling by rights advocates.
The Anglican Dean of Brisbane said the city’s St. John's Cathedral would be open to asylum seekers, stressing the role of offering sanctuary by places of worship, according to news broadcaster ABC.
"Many of us are at the end of our tether as a result of what seems like the Government's intention to send children to Nauru," Reverend Dr. Peter Catt said.
A total of 91 children – 37 of them babies – could be impacted by Wednesday’s ruling, which rejected a test case, among a series of challenges on behalf of 267 people brought to Australia for urgent medical treatment after suffering harm in offshore detention centers.
"So we're reinventing, or rediscovering, or reintroducing, the ancient concept of sanctuary as a last-ditch effort to offer some sense of hope to those who must be feeling incredibly hopeless," Catt was quoted as saying.
The senior Anglican leader described the concept of sanctuary as “a way of saying I'm entering into God's territory, away from the civic authorities that are oppressing me, and the oppressors generally accepted that the church could offer sanctuary to people."
Australia’s immigration minister, however, has underlined that churches would not be exempt from the law.
"Churches provide lot of assistance to refugees and they feel very strongly about this issue," Peter Dutton told Sydney-based 2GB radio.
"In the end, people have to abide by Australia law, regardless of who they are," he added.
Meanwhile, a senior academic at Australian National University has said that those sheltering a person considered “an unlawful non-citizen, a removee or a deportee” could face up to 10 years in prison under a section within the Migration Act.
"So [the penalty for] that offence is imprisonment of 10 years or fine of $180,000 or both," ABC quoted Marianne Dickie, who works in the migration law program, as saying.
"But for us the problem arises with the term unlawful non-citizen, removee or deportee in determining what status the people that the church is saying that they'll look after, hold at that present time," she added.
In addition to those offering sanctuary, people disclosing details of conditions at offshore detention centers could also face charges, under the widely criticized Border Force Act passed by parliament in May.
A Sydney pediatrician who has visited Nauru has expressed disappointment over Wednesday’s decision, alongside a need to speak out despite restrictions placed on doctors under the act.
"Health professionals with experience in the detention network are consistent in our calls to remove children from this environment," Hasantha Gunasekera told SBS.
"The children, some who have spent most of their lives locked up behind fences, deserve better," he stressed.
"I felt I had no choice but to let the Australian people know what we are doing to already-traumatized kids."
In September, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, canceled his Australia visit because he said the act would discourage detention center workers from disclosing information, and the government had refused to guarantee that professionals and staff would not be prosecuted under its new secrecy provisions for speaking with him.
The legislation allows for a jail sentence of up to two years for anyone who speaks publicly about issues at detention centers, such as those in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus island.