According to the Howard Administration, the Australian Government has a "decent, generous and compassionate" track record when it comes to accommodating a share of the world’s refugees. Events of recent times tell otherwise, with daily reports of mental illness, hunger strikes, self-injury, and suicide amongst inmates held within the country’s mandatory detention centres for asylum seekers. Fenced off with barbed wire in the middle of the South Australian desert, the former air force barracks at Woomera is seen an a concentration camp for refugees who have managed to flee some of the world’s most murderous regimes. On this background, the events of August 29, 2001, bear testimony to the Australian Government’s fervor to deter displaced men, women and children from seeking refuge inside the nation’s borders.
Three days beforehand, on Sunday August 26, the Norwegian freighter MS Tampas responded to an Australian Coastal Surveillance alert that a boat was sinking 140 kilometres north of the country’s west coast – the precise location situated inside of Indonesia’s sea rescue zone, but closer in distance to the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Saving 460 chiefly Afghan asylum seekers from a watery grave, the Tampa’s captain Arne Rinnan then sought to deliver his human cargo to their preferred destination of Christmas Island. Prime Minister Howard’s response was swift, refusing the Tampa entry into Australian waters because the rescued had been picked up in Indonesian waters.
In the days which followed, Howard remained steadfast that Australian doors were closed to what his Minister for Immigration, Phillip Ruddock, had repeatedly referred to as "illegal immigrants". While making it clear to Rinnan that none of his asylum seeking cargo could put a single foot on Australian soil, both Howard and Ruddock declared that responsibility laid with Indonesia, the location to where the hapless pawns in the turmoil had first been trafficked to begin their ill-fated voyage on August 24 aboard an unseaworthy vessel. As an alternative, Captain Rinnan was advised that he could take his human cargo back with him to Norway. Authorities in Indonesia and Norway disagreed, leaving Rinnan to contemplate the misery of those whose fate had fallen in his lap.
On the morning of Wednesday August 29, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock set the scene for a new chapter of the war against asylum seekers, when he came close to calling Rinnan’s human cargo terrorists "I don’t want to liken this to a hijack in an aircraft but you know the sorts of practical issues that are addressed when people try to hijack aircraft"! Yet there was not a scrap of evidence that a single one of the 460 asylum seekers rescued from their leaking boat by the Norwegian freighter on August 26 was armed, as neither had Arne Rinnan hinted that any amongst the refugees had threatened his authority as the MS Tampa’s captain. But, as is his trademark, Ruddock failed to define exactly what "sorts of practical issues" he was referring to
Fearing for the survival of several of his rescued cargo, the vast majority traumatized by the conflicts which had driven them from their motherlands, most battered by the elements after traveling the high seas, and a number in desperate need of medical attention, Rinnan then issued two medical mayday calls. Both went unanswered, and in defiance of the Howard order not to enter Australian waters, Rinnan headed the MS Tampa for Christmas Island. When within a few nautical miles of the ship’s forbidden destination, Rinnan was denied permission to dock. Soon after the MS Tampa was stormed by an Australian military unit, which after taking control of the vessel ordered Rinnan to "turn around and sail away"!
By late evening of August 29, both Howard and Ruddock had appeared on national television to dismiss claims that a number of asylum seekers were in need of urgent medical care. Rinnan remained firm in his refusal to move the MS Tampa out into international waters. And 460 desperate men, women and children remained in limbo, held in six empty freight containers, one of which served as their toilet, on the deck of a vessel anchored in heavy seas, and licensed to carry only 50 passengers.
In a last ditch effort to retrospectively legitimize the military invasion of the Tampa, the Howard Government introduced emergency legislation, referred to as the Border Protection Bill 2001. In the main, the legislation sought to enable an officer of the Prime Minister to direct any ship away from Australian waters; prevent such a direction from being challenged in any proceedings in any court; and to ban the protection visa application of any individual aboard a ship when such a direction was given. By this stage, the only good news in the face of Australia’s bullying came with the Labour Party’s Lower House opposition to the Government’s ploy. Debate continued in the Senate into the small hours of Thursday August 30, with Labour members holding onto the party’s rediscovered humanity to join forces with the Democrats and the Greens and block the Bill’s enactment.
Prior to the MS Tampa rescue, Howard’s spin doctors had successfully hoodwinked the public into believing that asylum seekers are largely a bunch of uncivilized invaders – criminals, queue jumpers, disease-ridden, and a burden on the taxpayer. Sparse attention, much less sympathy, was accorded the more than 20 million human beings, 16 million [80 per cent] being women and children, displaced from their motherlands by conflict. According to figures from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees [UNHCR], 456,473 people from around the world applied for refugee status in the year 2000. Taking into account those driven from their homes by the extremes of political or religious intimidation, the number is far greater. More than 100,000 Tibetans, driven from their China-annexed homeland, can be found in Dharamsala, India. Some 4 million displaced during the war of attrition between the Taliban and the Ahmad Shah Massoud-led United Front in Afghanistan have fled to Pakistan and Iran. For Afghans not to escape elsewhere means ethnic discrimination, rife unemployment for men, the well-documented torture of women in the name of the Taliban’s version of Islam, and a life expectancy of just 45 years. For the past two decades , the experience of Afghans in their homeland complies with the definition of refugee ["a person with a credible fear of persecution"], laid down in the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
Educated Afghans departed long ago. Those exiled in Pakistan, if they survive and manage to save $5000, have the option to seek a life in Europe away from the squalor of refugee camps. For those able to save anything less, Europe is not an option, but they can bribe their way into Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia, and have sufficient left to pay people smugglers for a boat passage to Australia.
Australia’s annual intake of some 16,000 immigrants on humanitarian grounds is a significant but small contribution to the global tally of asylum seekers, barely justifying Mr. Howard’s boastful perception of Australia’s "decent, generous and compassionate" refugee record. More realistically, the Howard Administration has imposed harshly definitions of refugee status to disqualify asylum applicants. Likened to the 1939 Voyage of the Damned which saw 937 Jews on the German liner St Louis prevented from disembarking in Cuba, the MS Tampa affair is another chapter in a heartless war against refugees. Chris Sidoti, spokesman for the Human Rights Council of Australia, identified the parallels between the Howard Government’s treatment of the Tampa’s human cargo, and the manner in which most of the West responded to the Jewish people before and during WWII. Valid comparisons can also be made with events of 1888, when the Australian states of Victoria and NSW blocked the entry of Chinese immigrants, effectively paving the way for Australia’s infamous White Australia Policy of exactly one hundred years ago.
But the Howard Administration underestimated the impact of external highly respected voices: UNHCR High Commissioner Mary Robinson, speaking from Durban on the eve of the World Conference against Racism, deemed that the Australia Government had breached the UN Convention on Refugees: "The Convention provides that they should be accepted at the nearest port and I think the issue is a very serious one. They should be admitted, they should be treated in an appropriate human rights way": Speaking from Oxford, Europe’s leading authority on refugees Professor Sir Michael Dummett condemned the Tampa affair as "a disgrace which had shamed Australia before the whole world". In response, the tide of public opinion turned. For the first time, opinion polls indicated a fall in public approval for the Howard Administration’s war against refugees. In the space of the 48 hours, public approval for the Government’s latest anti-refugee strategy fell from 80 per cent on August 28 to 50 per cent on August 30. With a federal election due, Mr. Howard may pay dearly for underestimating the morality of the electorate, but at this point in time the average Australian, also for the first time, is more intent on demanding a fair deal for refugees like those on board the Tampa, and whose only crime is to seek a new life downunder.