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The Tampa legacy 20 years on

  • 07 September 2021
  It took 438 desperate human beings upon the overladen wooden fishing boat, the KM Palapa, to present Australia’s Howard government in August 2001 with an electoral opportunity. At first, there was feigned ignorance from Canberra about any signs of desperation. The vessel, lacking power, lay some 100km off Christmas Island. Despite a coast guard plane noting men jumping up and down on the roof in a frenzy, nothing was initially done. Excuses were made.

On its return four hours later, things had not improved. Canberra’s approach: to persuade Indonesia to take matters in hand. A storm was also approaching. Those on the Palapa, mostly asylum seekers and refugees fleeing from the Middle East, survived. The transport was, however, doomed. Making another run, the plane noted ‘HELP’ greased upon the vessel’s roof using engine oil. Finally, some action. The call to save the distressed vessel was put out by the Australian Coast Guard.  Captain Arne Rinnan of the Norwegian container ship, the MV Tampa, made a decision to rescue the sinking boat. 

He made for the closest port: Christmas Island. The Australian authorities preferred Rinnan continue course to the Indonesian port of Merak. Those on the boat protested. At Christmas Island, the refugees were refused to avail themselves of the right to land. Rinnan was threatened with fines while the rescued individuals were depicted by Philip Ruddock, then immigration minister, as hostage takers menacing the crew. Howard deployed the SAS, thereby militarising what would have otherwise been a standard civilian operation.

For days, the Tampa was held at sea. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees explained that those on the vessel be brought on land to be processed. New Zealand and Norway offered to accept the human cargo. The Howard government initially refused all requests but announced on September 1 that all the rescues would be processed in third countries. The UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, was being shredded in real time.

The Tampa inaugurated an incremental scale of brutal responses against unwanted refugees and asylum seekers, a policy justified to this day with a shoddy humanitarianism laced with security considerations. It led to the excision of land for the purposes of the Migration Act — those arriving by boat and reaching Australian waters were not, technically, deemed to be arriving in Australia. It led to the Pacific Solution and the creation of processing centres to deal with those accused of ‘queue-jumping’.

Despite a