John van Kooy

Border Politics, directed by Judy Rymer, is an important contribution to Australia’s live public debate about migration, our borders and humanitarian responsibilities. Filmed over the course of a year, Rymer’s documentary follows barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside around the world as he visits significant sites in refugee history, and speaks with experts on forced migration, human rights, and international law.

The film critiques the punitive asylum regime instituted by successive Australian governments over the last two decades, particularly the poor conditions on Manus Island and Nauru. Burnside argues that Australian political leaders have consistently fallen short of international human rights benchmarks, including the right to safety and security, enshrined in several conventions to which Australia is a signatory. Such rights have effectively been pushed aside in favour of a politics of fear and scapegoating. Politicians have sought to capitalise on the vulnerability of asylum seekers and refugees by channelling the electorate’s latent anger or frustration towards them. The film weaves footage of Australian politicians like John Howard and Scott Morrison together with the proclamations of Donald Trump and Theresa May: “Criminals!” “We are being overrun!” “They are murderers and rapists!” “Build a wall!”

Australia’s policies of indefinite detention, maintaining offshore prisons and labelling asylum seekers as ‘illegals’ all seem exceptionally harsh when compared with other refugee destinations around the world. Burnside visits Greece, Germany and the United Kingdom, finding many examples of welcoming attitudes and hospitality towards refugees. This despite arrival numbers that dwarf even the most irrational Australian fears about ‘boat people.’ On the Greek island of Lesvos—through which most of the 1.1 million migrants and refugees arriving in Greece by sea since 2014 have passed—local support groups receive, feed and look after people as they prepare for their onward journeys. Jordan, a country of under 10 million people, hosts more than 660,000 Syrian refugees—there are more Syrians currently in the Zaatari refugee camp than the total number of asylum seekers who have arrived by boat in Australia since 1976. Against the backdrop of these examples, Burnside makes a passionate appeal to our ‘moral compass,’ emphasising that the responsibility to protect refugees and people seeking asylum is not being shared equally across the globe, and perhaps least of all by Australia.

The clear message of Border Politics is that false narratives employed by successive governments have effectively duped the Australian public. Using rhetoric of suspicion and illegality, politicians have consistently lied to us, Burnside argues, about who asylum seekers and refugees are, why they have fled, and how many are at our doorstep, with the collusion of powerful mainstream media outlets. This combination of dishonest political leadership and the lack of critical media voices is at the core of Burnside and Rymer’s sobering conclusions about the damage being done to Australian democracy.

Perhaps the main limitation of Border Politics, however, is that its critique does not address our own complicity in this situation. Why would a government of any persuasion pursue objectively bad policies like indefinite offshore detention—at once morally reprehensible, damaging to our international reputation and obscenely expensive? How can politicians so effortlessly cast all people who arrive by boat as dishonest criminals in collusion with people smugglers? Is it because of a misguided understanding of effective border security and deterrence measures? Sheer ideological blindness and parochialism? Thinly-veiled racism and xenophobia? Burnside offers few explanations for how this situation came into being. At the conclusion of the film, he calls out Australia’s political leaders as ‘liars’ and ‘bastards,’ but this is a frustratingly shallow analysis.

For those of us moved by Border Politics to ask what we can do to change this situation, perhaps the answer lies in turning the gaze back on ourselves. On average, Australians go through more years of education (21) than any other country in the OECD. In 2016, around 44 per cent of Australians aged 25-64 had a tertiary education—around double the proportion in 1993. Eighty-six per cent of households now have an internet connection, giving Australians unprecedented access to information from an almost infinite number of sources. Major news outlets across the country (including the Murdoch press) have reported, under conditions of government secrecy, incidents on Manus Island and Nauru—enough to make plain to any observer the terrible conditions that have stripped human beings of their freedom, agency and dignity. Moreover, public demonstrations and advocacy campaigns, led or endorsed by prominent organisations like the Australian Medical Association, continue to draw attention to human rights concerns with our asylum regime. What then is our excuse for allowing the ‘lies and bastardry’ that Burnside decries to circulate so freely in the public debate?

Border Politics should be applauded for applying heat to Australian politicians and journalists for their treatment of asylum and human rights issues. However, that we as a public can be so easily convinced of a non-existent threat from boat people is an indictment not so much of our politicians—who are less trusted by voters now than at any time since the Whitlam dismissal in 1975—but of ourselves.

Those of us who feel compelled to act need to feel outraged that we have let our human rights record deteriorate so rapidly, and let this fuel our conviction to talk stridently about the issues with apathetic or wilfully ignorant audiences. There are plenty of resources we can draw on (including from this website) to inform conversations with friends, colleagues and family members. We don’t have to look overseas to find compassion and solidarity with refugees: there are many examples of Australian neighbourhoods, communities and cities demonstrating welcoming practices that directly counter exclusionary discourses in parliament or the media. We also don’t have to wait for future generations of voters to apply necessary political pressure. With several key by-elections coming up and a federal election within the next year, we can begin to turn things around by telling candidates and their campaigners that Australia’s ‘border politics’ is doing permanent damage to our human rights and democratic institutions, and that it is unacceptable.

John van Kooy is a Researcher and PhD Candidate in the Monash University Migration and Inclusion Centre. His work focuses on refugee settlement and inclusion in Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @jvankooy.

Border Politics has been on a limited national release for the past two months, with Q&A events being held in Melbourne and Sydney. For more information visit: