How an Afghan refugee crisis at sea transformed Australia policy

In August 2001, an Indonesian fishing boat carrying 433 asylum seekers was en route to Australia’s Christmas Island, when its engine failed in international waters.

The Australian Coast Guard called on a Norwegian freighter nearby to conduct a rescue operation.

Many on board the Indonesian vessel were Afghans who were fleeing persecution from the Taliban and included several pregnant women and children. When the MV Tampa’s captain, Arne Rinnan, arrived on the scene, he found the refugees in an obvious “bad state”.

“Ten to 12 of them were unconscious,” he told the SBS broadcaster. “Several had dysentery and a pregnant woman was suffering abdominal pains.”

The Tampa’s rescue of the asylum seekers would later become the trigger for Australia’s hardline approach to border protection and then-Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to require asylum seekers arriving by boat to be processed in offshore detention centres – a continuing practice that human rights groups have called “abusive” and “cruel”.

Today marks 20 years since the Tampa rescue.

Once the asylum seekers were on board the container ship, the Australian Coast Guard told Rinnan to return them to Indonesia, but several of the refugees pleaded with the captain to take them to Christmas Island instead. Some even threatened to kill themselves if the captain took them back.

For the Tampa’s crew, the issue was a matter of urgency. The freighter did not have enough rations to feed all of its new passengers and for days, Rinnan tried to make contact with Howard’s government for permission to dock at Christmas Island. As the asylum seekers waited in limbo, the deteriorating situation on board the Tampa made national headlines and Australians found themselves grappling with the complex issue of migration in a manner they had not done before.

“It just wasn’t in the public imagination like it is today,” said Alex Reilly, director of the Public Law and Policy Research Unit at the University of Adelaide. “But that all changed with Tampa. Suddenly, all the cameras were on this issue, and the public was learning about it all on the spot.”

On August 29, Rinnan declared a state of emergency on the Tampa and entered Australian territorial waters. Howard’s government sent in special forces to prevent the ship from sailing any closer to Christmas Island and introduced the first of a series of laws giving it the power to refuse entry to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

The legislation was backdated to give the Australian government retroactive authority to board the Tampa.

At the same time, Howard’s government negotiated with authorities in the Pacific island of Nauru to have the refugee’s application for asylum processed at detention centers there.

The Australian government called it the “Pacific Solution”.

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