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The Tampa legacy 20 years on



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 temporary reversal of some of these policies during the first Rudd government in 2007, a rise in the number of naval arrivals saw a return to the harsh regime under a panicked Gillard government in 2012. ‘If you arrive in Australia by boat,’ then immigration minister Chris Bowen promised, ‘you can be taken from Australia by aeroplane and processed in another country.’


'What took place twenty years ago at sea on a Norwegian tanker might have produced a different result: a quiet processing of claims; a generous acceptance of those who had made a precarious journey across the ocean fleeing oppression and hardship.' 


In 2013, then opposition leader Tony Abbott adopted the highly successful ‘Stop the Boats’ campaign, accusing the Labor government of being soft on border security. Taking a leaf out of Howard’s playbook, he sought to further militarise a normally civilian activity. Operation Sovereign Borders would come to be an Australian fixture, imposing military-grade secrecy on naval operations. Long-term processing centres would be maintained and funded on Nauru and Manus Island.

A central figure to the policy, then immigration minister Scott Morrison, gave a flavour of such secrecy at a press conference which was not designed to inform so much as dictate: ‘This briefing is not about providing shipping news to the people smuggler — it’s about what the government is going to do in this operation to stop those people coming to Australia and on those boats and deliver on our mandate achieved at the recent elections to implement policies that will stop the boats.’

The Australian Border Force created in its wake was kitted out with paramilitary regalia and position titles to match. The symbolism of force was seamlessly incorporated into managing refugees and asylum seekers not lacking a flavour of sanctioned thuggery.

Central to the platform was the demonization of people smugglers and the market model, which became a convenient way of blackening the actual people who would benefit from sanctuary.  If you treat the smugglers as criminals, they are, by virtue of that, dealing in contraband unworthy of settlement on the Australian mainland.

Australian officials could thereby forget history: that people smugglers have rescued the desperate through the centuries in the face of tyrannical regimes and oppressive rulers. John Passant reminded readers of the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010 that the German industrialist Oskar Schindler was paid for smuggling people while governments of his day who proclaimed to be humanitarian — the US, Great Britain and Australia — were keen to ‘turn back the boats’.

The Refugee Convention makes no distinctions on these points: as a refugee, you are not to be penalised; you are not to be discriminated against; you are not to be returned (non-refouled) to a place where your life will be endangered on account of religion, belief, opinion and so forth. But Australia has, singularly, been a pioneer in violating each of these provisions even as it claims membership of the convention. On this subject, it has become a saboteur.

Internationally, Australia’s vigilante refugee model came to be praised.  In June 2016, Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz opined that, ‘The Australian model of course cannot be completely replicated but its principles can be applied in Europe.’ Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, at the third demography summit held in Budapest in 2019, welcomed Abbott warmly as a pioneer. ‘I extend a special welcome to Australia’s former prime minister.  It is in part due to his tough policy that we regard Australia as a model country. We especially respect it for the brave, direct and Anglo-Saxon consistency which it has shown on migration and defence of the Australian nation.’

In the UK, Home Secretary Priti Patel recently entertained establishing offshore detention centres on such overseas British territories as Ascension Island and St. Helena. According to the Financial Times, ‘The proposal [for offshore processing] is further evidence of the influence of Tony Abbott’s ideas on the Johnson government.’ 

What took place twenty years ago at sea on a Norwegian tanker might have produced a different result: a quiet processing of claims; a generous acceptance of those who had made a precarious journey across the ocean fleeing oppression and hardship. Australia, instead, offered a dark alternative, one hostile to refugees and the right to asylum, a model to be used by wealthy states to frustrate international law. It is one that shows little signs of losing its cruel appeal.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Tampa, asylum seekers, 20 years, refugees, Christmas Island, John Howard



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Existing comments

This heartless, electorally opportunistic response left me somewhat ashamed as a New Australian.
This streak of meanness has continued in so many ways since such as slashing our overseas aid budget, our lack of support to our sinking Pacific Island neighbours, our steadfast refusal to free those in detention and finally our ill-planned, tokenistic response to those fleeing Afghanistan.
When Climate Changes finally takes grip of our coastal, low-lying, populous neighbours to the north we will not be so lucky.

Ivan Tchernegovski | 07 September 2021  

Great article and fair comment. Matthew 25:31-46 ('as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me') and Luke 10:25-37 (parable of the Good Samaritan, told to answer the question: 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?') must be missing from the Bibles of those good Christians, Howard, Abbott and Morrison.

Peter Schulz | 07 September 2021  

How did their holiday in Indonesia go so terribly wrong? This version is worse than Gilligan's Island; the refugees entered Indonesia on legal "visa on arrival" tourist visas with passports, rather than claim asylum there and be detained. Then they illegally paid smugglers way more than a $500 airfare to get on a boat with the AIS tracking turned off to escape detection, determined to enter Australia by force or deception rather than risk claiming asylum on arrival or wait in the queue. You can color the history any way you choose but the final voyage was both risky and illegal. I don't blame them for wanting better lives but this wasn't a spur of the moment decision. No, the government didn't handle it well but perhaps the legacy of bumbling, harsh or objectionable immigration law is exactly the PR they want to,portray. It stopped boats. Tampa era was vastly different from the Vietnamese boat people; Viets fled poverty and risked death by leaving...whereas Tampa refugees travelled quite normally until the last boat charter. We can never know how many lives were lost in these illegal smuggler voyages nor how many were saved by keeping the detention centres as a warning. Boats sink... and the sea is less forgiving than it is silent.

ray | 07 September 2021  

Well expressed Binoy. One wonders what the Morrison Government will do when planeloads or boatloads of refugees fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan start flocking to our shores, particularly those who assisted our ADF people in our idiotic and unhinged military adventure which has recently ended in defeat for the US and ourselves .The LNP Government of Howard made the mess . I doubt the Morrison want to be saddled with the result .

Gavin O'Brien | 08 September 2021  

Hugely entertaining to see Ray do a repeat of his performative best with a deft attempt at the military two-step: one step forward and another in reverse! He manages this by excising the fact that tourist visas are the only ones available at short notice to gain entry to our neighbours' domains, while money universally provides the only means of inducing equally impoverished boat-providers to come to one's aid, when all that makes sense in pandemonium and panic is to buy an escape. Glaringly, Ray's step in reverse, clad without camouflage in a jack-boot, is much harder to disguise, and which Binoy unmasks in searing detail: the stacked hand - mixed metaphors permitting - played by Howard & Abbott to pull the wool over the electorate's eyes and wheedle their way onto the policy dance-floor towards a Pyrrhic Victory, making Australia, and especially this deadly duo, outright winners of the award for the moral lepers of the world. Might I recommend a more subtle and seductive form of choreography, Ray? What about trying out the tango? It has at least the advantage of being sexy as well as seductive, rendering unnecessary the policy brutality that you effect to excuse. Thanks.

Michael Furtado | 08 September 2021  

"Comments must be on topic and respectful" is a requirement for ES. I am, therefore, unable to comment on Howard and his ilk, -a great shame, since I had a cracker lined up for the lot of them!

john frawley | 08 September 2021  

If the government had taken on, with urgency, the plight of the Tampa asylum seekers, and not locked them away, it would be a different story. Its what followed after the Tampa - the institutional neglect, the cruelty - that is important.

I support efforts to create a sensible policy. Often, explanations give no emphasis to the deaths. The danger. The failed and broken nature of the asylum system. How many more would have died? I have no doubt it would be thousands.

The Schindler analogy is unsound. There is a difference between saving, hosting, asylum and resettlement. There is often simple assumption of causality in discussion of these issues. Issues are complex. Why have all countries of second asylum abandoned the principles of the refugee conventions? Europe's recent migration compact. The UK. The USA. Even Canada abandoned it when borders were challenged by Costa Ricans. Its not do with Abbott as inspiration. Its to do with core political imperatives. They are under siege. There is little appetite for a new global order on protection to reflect the times, the crisis. Countries are acting unilaterally.

John | 09 September 2021  

Its disheartening when complexity seeps in as an excuse not to express judgment (or criticism, for that matter) about changes in the pattern, context and reasons for asylum seekers trying to get here. The same argument has been employed to forestall judgment of Samurai swordsmen whose sole marker of chivalry was the ability to slice a wayfarer in half with one swing of the sword. The punishment of people for irritating us by desperately trying to land on our shores is all the more wicked for the ire and inconvenience it has caused us from time to time to take our blinkers off and share our excess goods with them. Where they come from and the politics of those they are escaping from should have nothing to do with it as a matter of ethical principle. The esteemed moral philosopher, Mary Midgley, once wrote a famous essay about it called 'Trying Out one's New Sword' ('Heart & Mind: The varieties of Moral Experience', St Martin's Press, NY, 1981). Thank you, Binoy, for pricking our consciences about a disgraceful event perpetrated off our shores twenty short years ago. In my book Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa is a hero!

Michael Furtado | 10 September 2021  

John: ‘Issues are complex.’ Really? Sin is never complex. ‘Complex’ is the sort of excuse used by divorcees who want communion or same-sexers who want trophy children or transwomen who want to scoop up all the gold in the women’s events. People are intended to stay where they are because all nations are intended to be run by decent governments. Where is the refugee exodus of whites from Europe, or even whites from Eastern Europe to Western Europe? The leaders of any country which produces refugees should be sanctioned and anathematised. Exhausted by war? Hardly. The US army had been doing next to nothing in Afghanistan anyway. If the US wants to recover its honour, a wonderful opportunity awaits it in Myanmar. The generals will flee because the army is a paper-tiger, except against civilians, the populace will welcome the saviours with open arms, there are no recalcitrants in the population except for a few chauvinist Buddhist monks, and China will be very unhappy but so what? It’s very happy now going over all the US equipment left behind in Afghanistan, reverse-engineering to their heart’s content.

roy chen yee | 10 September 2021  

Some measure of how crucial this discussion is at this time can be gained from reading the following article:


We should hang our heads in collective shame that former PM Abbott has been doing the rounds in Britain and Europe, advising everyone who listens to employ a version of Australia's Off-shore Policy 'solution' to solve the 'problem' of Howard's devious construction, viz. that of 'people-smuggling'.

The Howard-Abbott 'solution' has now taken root in the UK as Australia's 'gift' to the world of devising a scheme for excluding asylum-seekers now takes root there and throughout Europe.

ES readers will note, to the tragic collective shame of those of us who claim to be Catholic, that the arch-proponent of this scheme is none other than the conservative Catholic, Tony Abbott.

This is also a policy that Sydney's Catholic archbishop publicly endorsed before the last federal elections, without a murmur of protest or rebuke from his fellow bishops.

Michael Furtado | 10 September 2021  

In case Roy reads my dissembling of complexity as some sort of Damascene Conversion to his age-old motu proprio of demonising gay people and divorcees who approach the Communion rails, let me disavow him. Firstly, there is no logical connection between his criticism of US foreign policy and the fact that none who approach the Altar are angels. As such, Roy promotes a distorted Eucharistic Theology. Secondly, Biden's withdrawal of US troops is a wise acknowledgment that their interference in the Middle East was nothing short of a heinous twenty-year retaliation for 9/11, meted out by his vengeful predecessors. It is not unlikely in the future that the US will be called to account for its crimes in many so-called 'theatres of war' following WWII. One advantage of the immense divide between Republicans and Democrats is that it holds policy-liars to account after they have relinquished office in ways that are already operational in constitutional democracies elsewhere. The same will hopefully be true of those Australians and governments that have demonised asylum-seekers in ways that breach all constitutional and ethical norms. The problem with Roy's approach is that the sword he wields against complexity is no Excalibur and needs replacement.

Michael Furtado | 12 September 2021  
Show Responses

‘Secondly, Biden's withdrawal of US troops is a wise acknowledgment’ 2000 troops isn’t enough to garrison Kabul, let alone Afghanistan. The locals were doing most of the heavy work but the expatriates were providing necessary moral support and the expensive equipment. In pulling out, the US Democratic Party just sold out the cousins of its two most important home constituencies, women and gays, and you seem to be happy to sell out your gay siblings too. Am I being hypocritical? No. If we apply what God said to Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah, the fact that there are 10,000 to 12,000 Christians in the country is enough justification for at least a nominally Christian power to keep a toe in the country. And if keeping the place safe for them also helps gays a bit, well, God does cause rain to fall on everybody. At the end of the day, everything boils down to a culture war or a civilisational conflict. As long as the Great Commission remains valid, how could that not be the case?

roy chen yee | 13 September 2021  

Alas, Roy; the Tampa dream of a world of compassion and without exclusion is challenged by those whose project is to make Catholicism a religion of haters. Found, also, in other scriptural faiths, they are the ultras, the temple-police, the zealots, 'les talibans nouvelle', the bigots, the die-hards, the fanatics & the rigorists - you them more than most! - in short, the fundamentalists. They attribute their fetishism about small points of ritual and doctrine and their relentless authoritarianism to a passionate concern for - would you believe it? - TRUTH! Why do they hate gays, in your enforced context, and how? Is it a world of mirrors that they desire, only to see facsimiles of themselves? Others of difference are dirty, sinful, repugnant and threatening, while specific difference, especially of the heretic who is not quite alike and the apostate who has broken ranks and left, particularly demonised. Then there are the lax, too jaundiced to protest and an insult to the self-imposed submission to the Law that the rigorists self-impose. In general the ultras hate to see in others what they have repressed in themselves. The violence of their hatred correlates with that of their own self-repression. No?

Michael Furtado | 15 September 2021  

‘They attribute their fetishism about small points of ritual and doctrine and their relentless authoritarianism to a passionate concern for - would you believe it? - TRUTH!’ When you’re in Hyde Park, the mode is to exhort with varying degrees of verbosity. When you’re in a blog, the mode is to explain. The prolix nature of your post suggests you must think you’re in Hyde Park (or should we call it Hype Park?). Your so-called fundamentalist is simply being scientific. There’s a text that has come from God which, occasionally, has some hard teachings. If the text is derived from an omniscient being, equally knowledgeable about past, present, and future, it cannot be changed and the hard teachings slipped under the carpet. If human words have consequences, even more so words inspired by divine omniscience. It's that simple.

roy chen yee | 18 September 2021  

Roy, re your's of 18/9, its not that religions are meant to be hate ideologies, such as your Talibanista Catholicism, but that it is some adherents who make it so. The Walloons and Quebecois arouse great animosity because of their linguistic identity but they don't reduce French to a pernicious ideology that spreads hatred. While religion has been used to inject communal, reactive and sectarian hostilities, Catholicism has since outgrown this 'othering', used as a clarion call during the religious wars between the Reformation and Vatican II. You cannot just dismiss this as the rodomontade of a soap-box orator. Religion evolves primarily as a medium of internal social communication. Its just unfortunate that the closer together it draws insiders, the more the unfortunate outsiders feel excluded. No malignant intention is at work. It is just that those who are not in the network do not get the messages. Catholics like you are correct in your instincts, only more so than us. Rejection and acceptance, hatred and love, exclusion and inclusion have always been correlative and co-equal in a thought-system that cannot exclude either. It follows that no amount of hectoring from either side to 'colonise' the synodal agenda will work.

Michael Furtado | 20 September 2021  

Your predisposition to dissemble shows (as usual). The proposition is very simple: follow the Book to the letter because all those letters received the editorial stamp of approval from the Divine Omniscience and not one jot or tittle is to be changed. ‘You cannot just dismiss this as the rodomontade of a soap-box orator.’ What the soap box operator is saying, to use another context as an example, is that instead of receiving 2 jabs, it will be fine for those with a lower pain threshold presenting for vaccination to receive 2 sips from the vials because ‘conscience’ says so. Your dissembling here, as usual, is about process (‘communication’) because you wish to obscure the ends to which your dissembling leads: opening up the sacred priesthood to the abomination of divorce and extending the Eucharist to those who present for spiritual vaccination according to their terms.

roy chen yee | 20 September 2021  

Michael, Ad hominem again; you can do better... Rather than lower the discussion to the personal allegation perhaps we can peruse a concept you've introduced to ES which is Stendhal; as you so eloquently suggested, the mere corrupted memory of an event becomes a truth even though the reality was quite alternative. It's somewhat like the Chuchill phrase "history is recorded by the victors..." My interjection reminds readers that Binoy's reminiscing is somewhat inaccurate and skips over the salient -a) how did they get there? b) why did they need to leave illegally? My passport has about 50 entries to Indonesia by land, sea and air; visas, kitas and APEC, Indonesian immigration law is something I have experienced for 30 years, Tampa era included. I like tango; Por una Cabeza is quite a favorite. If you'll kindly explain how 458 people got in legally but discovered a humanitarian need to leave unlawfully immediately I'll change my steps. I don't seek to support the Australian "boat" policy but I do acknowledge the functionality of deterrence and beneficial bi - product which saves lives. So please, grace us with your insights of their plight without obfuscation, rhetoric or forgetfulness. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://sievx.com/articles/psdp/20011020TampaTantrums.html&ved=2ahUKEwiRhqfi0PnyAhVRyDgGHXKRDK0QFnoECA4QAQ&usg=AOvVaw2e9Lerpf86Hk-yn17oMPJy

ray | 13 September 2021  

I became interested in the issue of refugees in 1977. In northern Afghanistan, I was asked to donate blood to a woman - arm to arm - by a doctor. The woman died. Hazara lady. She was a refugee. I volunteered immediately to work in that camp.
Forty four years later, I find interest in this once obscure issue has grown. It has become heavily politicised.
Much discussion lacks facts, statistics. Some is driven by strong emotions. Other views are saddled with ignorance. Some people, sadly, lack compassion. I decided I would dig deep. I read a lot on this topic. I was taught in my career to "read a lot to write a little."
That obsession has taught me to respect the complexity of the issue. I don't want to be that person who whacks people on the head. "You're wrong. "You're cruel." I fear much discussion, from all sides, suffers overreach. Let's find the middle ground. Always try to understand that other point of view.
I do not support what the government did with the Tampa.
I remain uncomfortable. What of the deaths, Binoy? All that reading, I still have no answer. The Tampa was a death lottery.

John | 13 September 2021  

Hello, Ray; there's more to this than meets your eye. Andy writes a piece, your response is usually stylistic and of the 'Yes, but; no but' varietal. Given that no one here knows who you are, I tried a variety of responses, including, as the ES record will show, engaging with the sublime quality of your writing, which usually ends with an exculpatory flourish, but not after rolling a granite boulder on proceedings. Granted that this ain't intended to be mutual admiration society proceedings and the topic hardly commemorative of a plush picnic on Hobart's Constitution Dock watching the boats come in, but instead about keeping them offshore while we relax and cheer the exquisitely perverse unfolding drama of watching their human cargo drown (no doubt with beer in hand, pretzels on the foot-rest and a steak on the barbie) I think your's a Tu Quoque worthy of my cheapish Ad Hom. You may note, though hardly agree, that several of mine have stuck to topic and tried to engage the points or principles that you enunciate, especially in regard to your lucid writing style, but they failed to elicit a response. Thanks for gracing us with one this time.

Michael Furtado | 14 September 2021  
Show Responses

'not after rolling a granite boulder on proceedings.' Does the boulder have an Arthurian sword embedded in it, to make cut as well as crush injury? (Of course, a hilt isn't as sharp as a blade. But, then again, extricating a blunt edge usually involves more consequential damage to tissue.)

roy chen yee | 14 September 2021  

Michael, frequently I don't disagree with an author's article contention but may take exception to how they write either persuasively or deceptively. If I manage to roll a "granite boulder" in over an article it's only because that considerable monolithic chunk is missing from the author's edit...and perhaps you need to ask yourself why that was possible. Interestingly, you remarked Rinnan is a hero; I admire him also. The Tampa rescued the refugees and was making way to port of Merak Indonesia until the captain was threatened, outnumbered by 300+ desperate men. Forced to redirect to Christmas island because the refugees had a mindset, arguably an act of piracy. He was pretty cool in a tight spot; the very people he'd just rescued from death were so gracious as to put him in fear for his and his crew's lives and commandeer Tampa. I admire he remained focussed on the wellbeing of all on board; I wonder if he even gets Christmas cards from them. You didn't respond to my request so no tango for you, just this other igneous basalt tor to roll over a Binoy's careful selective euphemism that "those on board protested" to describe a hijack at sea.

ray | 14 September 2021  

Thanks for a gracious response, Ray, allowing me the chance to take your hand as it were and 'lead you back onto the floor' ;). The hijack you describe was explained by Rinnen as the act of desperate men, women and children, assured of very little chance of resettlement in Indonesia (or countries en route, where they are persecuted and often demonised) as well as entitled to knock on Dives' door, if you'll pardon the employment of a Scriptural allusion in a Jesuit rag. Desperate people can indeed be deadly as well as devious: I grant you that. But proportionately considerably less so than those who shut the gates to keep them out!

Michael Furtado | 15 September 2021  

It is interesting to me that the much reviled John Howard worked effectively recently to obtain visas, previously cursorily rejected, for the Afghan interpreters who worked with our troops there before the abrupt pullout. It is also interesting that the Leader of the Opposition at the time of the Tampa Crisis was Kim Beazley, who put up a rather lacklustre performance on this issue in Parliament. Would a more effective Leader of the Opposition have embarassed the then Government and led to a more humane solution of the problem? I don't know, but I do think, in what is effectively a two party democracy, you do need an effective Leader of the Opposition. The Tampa Crisis was a 'hot' issue and involved many factors that may not have sat well with voters in Middle Australia: 'Muslims'; 'Queue Jumpers' and 'Keeping Our Borders Safe'.

Edward Fido | 20 September 2021