A group calling itself “a coalition of patriotic Australians” gathered at Eltham’s Andrews Park on Saturday to campaign against Catholic Care’s plan to house the refugees in empty St Vincent’s Care Services units.
“We are not going to try to fit in with you. I will not surrender Australia and Australian rights to Islamic barbarians,” Reclaim Australia’s John Bolton told the rally on Saturday.
But Catholic Care deputy chief executive Sheree Limbrick says a large portion of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees are likely to be Christians.
“That’s probably a high likelihood, given the conflict in Syria but we’re not necessarily going to turn away anyone who might be of Islamic faith,” Ms Limbrick told AAP.
“We work with anyone who needs our assistance.”
The units will house couples and single mothers – no single men will be placed in Eltham – and placements will begin in a few weeks.
“We’ve been very clear all the way along that it’s not appropriate accommodation for single men,” Ms Limbrick said.
Sydney man Nick Folkes organised the “Battle for Eltham Rally” because he said local residents felt governments had ignored “valid security concerns”, according to the event’s Facebook page.
A strong police presence kept anti-refugee and pro-refugee groups apart.
“We’re generally happy with the outcomes of today’s rallies. There was no violence, no injuries, no arrests,” Commander Russell Barrett told reporters.
Local residents responded to the anti-refugee rally by filling the protest site with 8000 paper butterflies, corresponding to the number of people who signed a pledge supporting refugees living in the area.
Nina Kelabora, from the group Welcome to Eltham, said the butterflies were the community’s way of saying welcome.
“We have no time for their fear and messages of hate. It does not belong in our community,” Ms Kelabora said.
“We also didn’t want to add any fuel to an already volatile situation so our butterflies are a silent protest from us.”
Mr Folkes came to national prominence in 2014 when he appeared on SBS’ Living With The Enemy.
He’s previously campaigned for the sterilisation of third-world refugees.