Leading human rights barrister Julian Burnside deconstructs harsh asylum seeker policies around the world, arguing that failure in political leadership is compromising human rights and destroying democratic principles in the West.
Julian Burnside is one of Australia’s leading commercial barristers, successfully representing some of Australia’s most high profile business people. Until the late 1990’s, he mainly acted for the ‘big end of town’.
But all that changed in 2001 when he was asked to act pro bono in the Tampa Case and discovered that Australia was doing very disturbing things to refugees.
Since then he has become one of the most outspoken defenders of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and a fierce critic of Australian government policy. He believes that successive Australian governments have failed to meet their international obligations, breaching the Declaration of Human Rights, the International Rights of the Child and the Refugee Convention.
As Burnside says “The human dimension of the problem is kept well hidden. The tragedy is that those who suffer it are politically irrelevant, and those who have the power to change it either do not know or do not care”.
In this documentary Julian Burnside traverses the globe to see how other Western countries treat refugees. Some of his findings are quite surprising.
In New York, he attends the UN meeting on refugees where the world’s leaders are gathered, at great expense, to find a solution to the greatest refugee crisis since World War 2. But he finds the West is unwilling to resettle just one million of the 22.5 million refugees currently displaced. He travels to Brexit Britain to speak with a champion of unaccompanied minors, Lord Dubs, who was instrumental in bringing an amendment to the British Immigration Act which allowed unaccompanied refugee children into Britain. The amendment was repealed after just six months.
He compares the attitudes of Scotland, France, Germany and Greece to demonstrate the role political leadership plays in humanitarian practices in these communities. Visiting hot spots of Zaatari Camp in Jordan, Lesbos in Greece and the Mexican border he talks with leaders, community members and international commentators questioning whether the West has lost its moral compass. Burnside argues that political leadership and vision in Western countries makes a profound difference to public perception. He suggests that there is a growing disparity between government and the community in the matter of humanitarian treatment of refugees. Governments increasingly talk up xenophobic fears, falsely labeling refugees as economic migrants, illegals and terrorists. And they are increasingly using refugees as scapegoats in the race by politicians to curb our civil liberties and erode our human rights.
He challenges the audience to consider their human rights obligations towards the desperate needs of refugees and to force their governments to take a more humane approach.
Julian Burnside is a hero of mine. Other heroes are David Marr, Gillian Triggs, Phil Glendenning and Paul Stevenson. These are people of enormous strength, integrity and bravery. They value the Australian way of life and seek to protect our values. Today, that takes courage.
To have all of these heroes in one of my films makes me feel on the one hand very honoured and on the other shocked and dismayed.
All of them have made a stand on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Some of them hold Australian’s highest civilian awards for their work in human rights.
When I realise that their voices in this film will not be heard on the public broadcasters, it tells me than political intervention about this matter has finally come to my doorstep.
In forty years I have not made a film that has been refused by television. This film, BORDER POLITICS, is perhaps the most important film I have made. Certainly, Commissioning Editor Ewan Angus from the BBC, who I have worked with for fifteen years, thinks so.
This is a film made in straitened times, about straitened times, seeking an audience it may never find. Fear has arrived at my doorstep.
It is, as Former Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs says, “a very unstable period and that is probably why those with an understanding of human rights need to speak up more clearly... I think we (in Australia) have regressed further than comparable democratic Western countries.”
BORDER POLITICS began as co producer Lois Harris and I agonised over our feelings of helplessness in the face of successive Australian governments’ treatment of asylum seekers.
Why, we asked, were people in the West, and Australia in particular, acting in such a heartless way? Why were Western political leaders encouraging divisions in the community that look frighteningly like compromising our democratic values?
As soon as we asked those questions we knew what film to make. We needed to make a global film about what was happening to human rights in the West. We needed to make a film about the West. A film that searched for the reasons why we reject the desperate needs of more than 20 million people running in fear from persecution.
The other matter that was clear was that we wanted Julian Burnside to lead this film. His tireless advocacy for asylum seekers and his articulate understanding of the compromises being made to human rights in the West made him an obvious choice to challenge an audience. He had the perfect mix of knowledge, passion and authority to reveal how serious our circumstances are.
As he says “It is not adequate to look back in future ages and say we regret what we did.”
We want you to watch this film. We want you to show it to friends. We want you to take up the Burnside Challenge set out in the final minutes of the film and we want you to help bring about change.
Believe me ....Time is running out.
Sydney Morning Herald
DIRECTOR: Judy Rymer
PRODUCERS: Judy Rymer, Lois Harris
Marden Dean, Gerry Vasbenter
Leo Sullivan, Austin Plocher
EDITORS: Paul Hamilton, Michael Horton
COMPOSER: Jan Preston
DESIGN: Michelle French/FRENCHBAKER
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Robyn Smith
JULIAN BURNSIDE BIO
Julian Burnside AO QC is an esteemed Australian barrister who practises principally in commercial litigation, trade practices and administrative law. He is also a prominent human rights and refugee advocate, and author.
Burnside follows in a long line of some of the world’s most admirable and effective advocates for peace and justice. His life was transformed when he started spending an increasing portion of his time arguing the case for asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia seeking safety from conflict in their homelands.
Burnside has been a persistent thorn in the side of governments on both sides. He believes existing policies against asylum seekers are not just cruel but represent an astonishingly expensive legal and moral failure. He is also a staunch opponent of indefinite, mandatory detention which current policy permits.
Burnside acted for the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties against the Australian Government in the MV Tampa affair, arguing that the Howard Government’s treatment of those asylum seekers denied them rights afforded them under the Migration Act and international treaties.
It has been an uphill battle all the way, but Burnside has been, and continues to be, unrelenting in his pursuit of justice for those less fortunate.
• In 2004 Burnside was awarded the Human Rights Law Award and also elected an
Australian Living Treasure
• In 2006 he was inducted as an honorary member of the Monash University Golden Key Society
• In 2007 he received the Australian Peace Prize from the Peace Organisation of Australia
• In 2009 Burnside was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO)
• In 2014 he was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize from the Sydney Peace Foundation.
"My human rights are terribly important, my family and friends and neighbours human rights are terribly important. Those other people, the people on the fringes, the aborigines, the refugees, the Muslims increasingly, their human rights don’t matter in the same way. That’s a profoundly dangerous way to see it because what many Australians don’t notice is that we have human rights not because we’re white or pleasant or Christian or rich but because we are human beings.”
“Some years ago there was a case of a guy from Iran who was in a detention centre with his 7 or 8 year old daughter and one day the department officers came in and ordered him to strip. He refused, not only because of the cultural difficulties but because his daughter was in the room and so they roughed him up and dragged him off, handcuffed him and dragged him off to the management unit, which is just solitary confinement. He got a visit for about 20 minutes each 24 hours from his daughter, he was allowed that. And after a couple of weeks the daughter missed a visit and he complained and the manager of the centre explained that his daughter had been taken into Port Augusta shopping. He said she would be there the next day. The next day he came in and explained that the daughter was now back in Tehran. They had removed her from the country without even giving her a chance to say goodbye to him. Then he had a terrible - it was basically a mental breakdown and was in detention in solitary for the next six or eight weeks. Eventually the circumstances became apparent and a case was brought and the department’s argument initially was the court has no role in saying the way we treat people in immigration detention, that was their argument. It’s astonishing”.
“The problem that has been happening is that politicians have fallen into the practice of calling boat people illegal and queue jumpers and calling their mistreatment border protection. If it were true it would make sense. We do need to be protected from people who are criminals or who are in some way morally redundant. But it’s false, it’s false because they have not committed any crime, they are not illegal. They are not representing a danger to us, so we do not need to be protected from them. There is not a queue, and even if there was a queue it is difficult to understand why a person who is running for their life should adopt the same etiquette of people who are standing in line at Coles.
So every aspect of what the politicians are telling us is false. But by lying to us they make it seem okay to mistreat innocent human beings who’ve just come here after terrible hardships just asking for safety, just asking for a safe place where they can live.
To suggest that they (the Government) are worried about refugees drowning is a lie: a fig-leaf to make immoral mistreatment look compassionate. “Worried about people drowning”! So worried that, if they don’t drown, we punish them as if they were criminals, and call them “illegal” to make their punishment look vaguely respectable. We do it, explicitly, as a deterrent so that others will not try to find safety in Australia. And these dishonest politicians, pretending to be motivated by compassion, overlook altogether that if persecuted people stand their ground and are killed by their persecutors, they are still dead: just as if they drowned; if they die in an attempt to escape to some other country, they are still dead: just as if they drowned”.