In a scene from the Australian documentary Border Politics, presenter Julian Burnside AO QC visits a strange and surreal garbage dump on the Greek island of Lesbos, located off the coast of Turkey. Strewn across beautiful grassy hills, with aqua blue water visible in the background, is the unsettling sight of thousands upon thousands of life jackets.
Many refugees go through Turkey to get across Europe, and Lesbos is a common jumping-off point. The jackets are stacked in huge mounds, among bits and pieces of other detritus including clothes and parts of boats. They are, perhaps, an accidental monument to the journey of the refugees, whose fates are uncertain.
Many years ago Burnside, a veteran barrister who became a refugee rights advocate after working on the 2001 Tampa case in an action against the Australian government, acquired the steely and unflappable demeanour we associate with high-profile lawyers. And yet, as he sits in front of one of the mounds, contemplating how every life jacket “represents somebody’s dreams of safety, of a better life”, and reflects on this grim place as “a graveyard of a million dreams”, you can see he is struggling to keep it together.
“You sort of get hardened to a lot of stuff,” he tells Guardian Australia. “But there I was, with those life jackets, suddenly faced directly with unexpected evidence of really big, human problems of the sort I had never seen before. It had quite an effect.”
Julian Burnside says another profound moment occurred when he was in the now-demolished Calais refugee camp. He looked up at an enormous fence, designed to keep out asylum seekers, and “saw a fragment of cloth, someone’s clothing, caught in the razor wire 20 ft above the ground. Then I saw someone’s shoe. It was a very clear indication of how desperate some people are; what they will risk in order to get somewhere safe.”
For Professor Gillian Triggs, former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission and an interviewee in the film, a moment that triggered a lasting impression occurred a few years ago in Jordan. One million displaced people had recently come across the border. Triggs was taken to refugee camps from the six-day war in 1967, which she vividly recalls learning about as a law student in Melbourne.
“It was then I realised,” Triggs recalls, “that for pretty much all of my 50 years of professional life, the refugees from the six-day war are still in refugee camps. Still struggling to survive. For me, seeing those two camps separated by 50 years was a compelling reminder of how serious a problem this is.”
The lawyer and human rights advocate is impressed, however, by measures undertaken by Jordan, including its refugee employment programs. The situation there is explored in Border Politics , with Burnside describing the country as a place that “puts us all to shame”.
While visiting Jordan, Triggs says she found that “the concern of the officials and politicians was all about how they were going to ensure clean water and education for the children. They certainly weren’t talking about how they could build walls or stop them coming. It was a completely different mindset. You just found yourself thinking: how could this be, when Australia is so far away and so relatively rich? How we could turn our backs on this?”