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Tampa: 20 Years of Shame

20 years since Tampa.

20 years of suffering, 20 years of shame.

What was the Tampa Affair and how did it influence Australia’s treatment of refugees?

On 26 August 2001, a routine surveillance flight by Coastwatch revealed the presence of a fishing boat approximately 80 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island. The vessel was carrying 433 asylum seekers en route to Australia before it broke down. The following day Australian Search and Rescue (AusSAR) broadcast a call to any merchant ships in the vicinity to render assistance to the stricken vessel. A Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, responded to the call, intercepting the vessel and bringing its passengers aboard. The Australian Government refused to allow the Tampa to dock at Christmas Island.

You can hear some reflections from David Looker, a former executive of the Wilhelmsen Lines which is the company that owned the Tampa, below.

The Victorian Council for Civil Liberties brought an action seeking to compel the Government to perform its duty under the Migration Act and bring the asylum seekers to the migration zone, where their applications for asylum could be processed.

The Julian Burnside article below outlines the legal challenges at the time by the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, which brought an action seeking to compel the Government to perform its duty under the Migration Act and bring the asylum seekers to the migration zone, where their applications for asylum could be processed.

Download PDF • 216KB

The Tampa ‘crisis’ lasted for 6 weeks, concluding with the transfer of the asylum seekers to makeshift accommodation on Nauru, and the terrible regime of offshore detention had commenced, referred to at the time as the Pacific Solution.

The Tampa Affair brought international attention to Australia’s harsh deterrence approach and will be recorded in Australian history as a very significant turning point in our response to refugees and people seeking asylum. The Tampa Affair was closely followed by the Children Overboard scandal on 7 October, and the sinking of the SIEVX on 19 October with the loss of 353 lives. This was a volatile time, with the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre creating high anxiety and fueling islamophobia.

The federal election in November 2001 was dubbed ‘the Tampa election’, as the then unpopular Howard government exploited fears and played the politics of division and race throughout the election campaign. The ‘strong man’ response to refugees and people seeking asylum became a key focus, and some enduring untruths about refugees became embedded in the public discourse at this time. The Government portrayed refugees as potential terrorists, they implied poor character by peddling a lie about refugees throwing their children overboard (a claim that was later thoroughly debunked), and they claimed refugees were illegally entering the country (denying their right to seek asylum under the UN Refugee Convention).

Having demonised innocent and desperate people, they sought to justify the punitive treatment as ‘saving lives’ while consigning people to desperation in shocking conditions in detention camps on Nauru, and later Manus Island in PNG. The campaign fed the worst aspects of racism in Australia, and the Howard Government was re-elected. Prime Minister Howard will be remembered for his declaration that ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ Julian Burnside OA QC describes the Howard government’s handling of the Tampa “crisis” as a triumph of electoral cynicism over humanitarian need.

Border protection and deterrence-based refugee polices continued as potent forces in Australia politics – a vigorous Stop the Boats campaign by the Coalition opposition resulted in the Rudd Government engaging in ‘a race to the bottom’ by reintroducing offshore detention, and declaring that no refugee who arrives by boat will ever be resettled in Australia. The Coalition won the election.

Suddenly, under the direction of Minister Morrison, now Prime Minister, ‘on water matters’ became top secret classified information – we were not to be told about how many boats were turned back under Operation Sovereign Borders, and how many lives were lost. We were not to think about the lives lost to despair in transit countries as Australia put up the ‘No Entry’ sign. However, the Guardian reported on a recent UN report which suggests that around 800 people been subjected to ‘push back’ since Sovereign Borders was instituted in 2013.

Forcibly pushing back migrant boats is a “cruel and deadly practice” that violates international law, and risks sending people back to death, torture or persecution, a senior UN official has said, warning countries that militarised borders and boat interdictions were contributing to deaths, not saving lives.

We were not to think about the huge cost of our ‘naval defence’ against Indonesian fishing boats carrying people desperate for safety. In September 2001 legislation was passed to ‘excise’ certain islands from the Migration Zone of Australia – to make it impossible for refugees landing on these islands to exercise their right to seek asylum. Further legislation was passed in 2013 to excise the mainland of Australia from the “migration zone”. The effort to repel people who seek our protection does not get more absurd than this legal contortion.

Ever since the Tampa election, there has been a sustained effort by government to dehumanise refugees, and to silence their stories of suffering, including seeking to silence advocates. The treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum who arrive by boat, has been cruelly calculated to destroy their hopes of resettlement in Australia, and to ‘send a message’ to others who might otherwise seek asylum in Australia. For two decades refugees have suffered the incredible cruelty of long-term detention, mental and physical abuse, and family separation - all designed to destroy hope and persuade refugees to give up their claims for protection. This is not treating refugees with compassion. While thousands of refugees have suffered trauma, there have also been consequences for the Australian population. The very soul of our nation is tainted as we permit the vilest treatment of vulnerable people. Cruelty has been normalised, secrecy and a lack of transparency has become acceptable, and we no longer hold our politicians to account - politicians who lie are no longer sanctioned, and fudging the truth has become an integral part of daily political life. Our Australian society, which once proudly stood for a fair go, has become more selfish, mean- spirited, mistrusting, and insensitive to cruelty. So long as we tolerate the mistreatment of refugees and people seeking asylum, we cannot live proud as Australians. Our national reputation as a good global citizen has been compromised – Australia’s treatment of refugees has been consistently and criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. The saddest part of all is that it did not have to be this way. It could have been so different Back in the late 1970s Australia had its first “boat people” crisis and the response lead by the Australian government was one of compassion and providing safe resettlement. At the end of the Vietnam War hundreds of thousands of people fled Vietnam, mostly in boats – just over 2,000 refugees arrived in Australia in small boats. Over a period of 10 years, the Australian government accepted over 80,000 Vietnamese refugees, mostly from refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. They were provided safe passage to Australia so they did not have to make the very risky boat journey. The Fraser Government made hard decisions at this time, resisting the negative community sentiment towards boat people, including some politicians within the government. This values- based political leadership demonstrated that Australia has the capacity to welcome refugees, and provide the support required to provide a safe and secure place in our community. Those Vietnamese refugees and their children and grandchildren are now very valuable Australian citizens.

Listen to the story of Thiet Huynh who was one of the refugees from Vietnam.

Let’s imagine a different ending to the Tampa incident. What if the refugees rescued by the Tampa were brought to Australia to have their claims for refugee status fairly assessed, and then offered resettlement? Like the Vietnamese refugees, they would have quickly become valued Australians contributing to our community. Imagine the joy of families reuniting, and finding a safe home here in Australia with us. We know there are many communities around Australia who are actively welcoming refugees.

Hear from members of the Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) community, Ali Corke and Louise Redmond, in the videos below. Ali Corke, founder of RAR in Apollo Bay, Victoria, speaks about the Tampa as a key moment when our government chose the politics of fear.

Ali is also the author of Take Shelter, and the Power of Good People, both drawing on her experiences of getting to know refugees and becoming part of their journeys to safety and security in Australia.

Louise Redmond gives a brief overview of the activities for Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) and its aims to assist refugees. Louise is the National President for RAR.

Think of the billions of dollars that have been spent on holding thousands of people for years in detention in squalid conditions on Nauru, in PNG, in Australian deserts, and also in our cities. Imagine the difference if this had been spent on significantly increasing our refugee intake to include many waiting in Indonesia for a safer resettlement option. This would truly save lives at sea. Imagine if some of the wasted billions had been spent to supporting the UNHCR to assess refugee claims in transit countries, and to support more resettlement options. This would have saved lives and given hope to thousands.

Until we succeed in our demands for refugee policies that are compassionate and just, we will remain a much lesser country. Be one of the Australians calling for justice for refugees.

The SIEVX Memorial – Canberra

This article is part of the ARAN Tampa Anniversary Resource Kit, which has been produced by the Australian Refugee Action Network (ARAN) August 2021. You can access the full kit from our Resources page.


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