In a scene from the documentary Border Politics, Julian Burnside stands among piles of discarded life jackets, clothing and boats, strewn across a hillside on the Greek island of Lesbos, off Turkey. In recent years, the island has become a gateway to Europe for countless refugees fleeing violence and oppression across the Middle East. He picks up a child’s lifejacket emblazoned with the cartoon of a happy, running child. The normally cool and composed Melbourne barrister is visibly moved.
The outspoken lawyer and former Greens candidate was asked by Australian filmmaker Judy Rymer to present her latest documentary examining the plight of refugees across the world. In the film, Mr Burnside travels to refugee flashpoints in Jordan, Greece and Mexico. He also talks to political leaders in New York, England, Scotland, France and Germany about their different approaches to the plight of what is now 22.5 million refugees across the globe.
He says combined with about 40 million others who are internally displaced, that number increases to 65 million people seeking refuge. But he says it’s not an impossible figure to tackle.
‘When you think we now have a population of about six billion — that’s one person in a thousand seeking refuge. Surely common decency means it’s possible to accommodate these people.’
He says the west’s response, including Australia’s border protection policy, has been ‘dismal’.
‘Are we really trying to raise a drawbridge against these people?
‘There are fewer than 700 people on Manus Island and Nauru. Would Australia grind to a halt if these people were brought here?’
He says Shepparton is providing a good example on how to treat refugees. ‘I hope people take away from the film the idea that Shepparton’s response is good — and that the Federal Government’s response is no good,’ he says.
Mr Burnside was impressed by the way refugees are treated in Jordan. ‘They have a small population — about nine or 10 million, they have no oil and they are sandwiched between Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine.
‘When I was there they had about one million Syrian refugees — but they live there. They can work and come and go — no problem. They can even set up shops. In Zaatari refugee camp there’s a shop that sold bridal gowns. I thought that was a wonderful symbol of hope,’ he says.
The Ethnic Council of Shepparton will host Mr Burnside and the documentary Border Politics when it is screened next week. Ethnic Council manager Chris Hazelman said he believed the film would provide Shepparton people with a real insight into the human plight of refugees — particularly on a local level.
‘We have people here in Shepparton who have friends and family on Manus and Nauru.
‘We have ‘visa anxiety’ — people who are worried about finding safe havens and what happens to people trapped in the system.’
Mr Hazelman said both main parties of Australian politics were in bi-partisan agreement on the issue of offshore processing, and that a media clampdown meant information was difficult to obtain.
‘The general public has no knowledge of what happens in these places. ‘There’s not a real understanding of how refugee policies work — and people do have a hankering to hear informed people’s views on this subject,’ Mr Hazelman said.
Border Politics will be shown on Thursday, July 18, at the Shepparton Brewery, 15 Edwards St, from 7.15pm. Catering is $25 for those wanting dinner, with food to be served from 6.30pm. Mr Hazelman said a Q&A session with Mr Burnside would take place after the screening.
To book, phone 5821 9776.