How an Afghan refugee crisis at sea transformed Australia policy
Twenty years ago, a Norwegian freighter rescued hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers off a sinking Indonesian vessel, triggering a crisis that ushered in Australia’s hardline immigration policies.
Melbourne, Australia – 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”.
Serving then as Howard’s immigration minister was Philip Ruddock.
It was a time of change for Ruddock’s portfolio as the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, many of whom were from the Middle East and Afghanistan, had started to increase. Only 56 boat arrivals were recorded in the 1980s, but the number began to grow in the 1990s.
Data from the Australian Parliamentary Library shows that a total of 2,939 asylum seekers arrived on Australian shores in 2000, and that number increased further in 2001, to 5,516. The latter was the highest figure since authorities began keeping records in 1976. Most of them were Afghans.
But the number of Afghans who sought asylum in Australia that year was minute compared with the number of people who sought refuge in Iran and Pakistan. The two countries, which border Afghanistan, each took in a million refugees that year.
Reilly said the spike in the number of refugees seeking help in Australia fed a “sense that things were changing”. At the time, Australia’s policy at the time was to detain asylum seekers rescued at sea in Australia while their claims for protection were processed.
“Most were only there for a short period of time while their claim was being processed, and then they were swiftly granted refugee status, or deported,” he said.
The Howard government, which was facing an election later that year, decided to radically change that policy. In its negotiations with the government of Nauru, it brokered a deal to build a facility to house the Tampa asylum seekers on the Pacific island and adopted a new vernacular to describe its immigration policies – one based on threats to Australia’s national security.
Howard and his ministers pledged to “stop the boats” and used new terms to replace the word “asylum seeker”, such as “illegals” and “queue-jumpers”.
Ruddock, the immigration minister at the time, told Al Jazeera that the change in policy was necessary.
Dealing also with a decrease in skilled migrants, the retired politician said he felt those arriving by boat in Australia were exploiting the country’s immigration system to gain access to the benefits of Australian society.
“I had to implement a smaller immigration system … and to make sure the programme was being run in Australia’s interests,” Ruddock said. “At the end of the day, you couldn’t leave people on the boat forever, but we had to find a way to ensure that Australia was not going to be compromised. To make sure it was acceptable to the Australian people, that means the people who vote for you in elections, here, in Australia.”
“The jargon used by the prime minister was that we were stopping the boats,” he added. “But I’ve never seen myself as a boat-stopper. I see myself as being the integrity manager.”
It was at this time that commercial litigator Julian Burnside began to question the legality of the government’s immigration policies. Outraged by the conditions in which the rescued passengers were languishing, Burnside agreed to act as senior counsel for the asylum seekers in the Tampa affair.
“I knew nothing about refugees, law or policy, but I said yes to act for asylum seekers because I thought it was wretched that those poor buggers were sitting out there in the tropical sun,” Burnside said. “That was the moment that the lights came on. I could see that the refugees’ human rights were being seriously infringed and that made me decide that I would get involved.”
As Howard attempted to push through harsh immigration laws, the asylum seekers on board the Tampa were taken on to an Australian navy troop carrier and Burnside and his associates launched a court bid to get the asylum seekers released from detention.
Their bid was initially successful, but the ruling in their favour was later overturned by the full bench of the Federal Court of Australia.
The federal court’s decision was handed down on September 11, the day al-Qaeda fighters hijacked aeroplanes and flew them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, US.
“John Howard, to his eternal discredit, seized that moment and started calling boat people illegals,” said Burnside.
In October, the Australian navy took the asylum seekers from Tampa to Nauru. Some 131 were sent to New Zealand, while applications from the remaining people were processed on Nauru.
The issue would take front stage in that year’s election campaign.
On October 28, Howard gave a speech that would come to define his platform of maintaining national security.
“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” he said.
Two weeks later, Howard’s Liberal-National coalition won a majority and he returned as prime minister.
The legacy of Tampa
While the Labor government of Kevin Rudd closed the detention centres in 2007, the prime minister backflipped on this position as boat arrivals increased before an election in 2013. Using language that echoed the sentiment of Howard, Rudd declared that year that “any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees”.
Later that year, Tony Abbott, the new leader of the Liberal-National coalition doubled down on the hardline policy introduced by Howard and repeated the coalition’s commitment to “stop the boats”, wiping out Rudd’s chances of re-election.
Today, Australia’s system of offshore detention enjoys bipartisan support in the country’s federal parliament, despite growing international censure.
At a United Nations Human Rights Council review held in Geneva earlier this year, more than 40 countries expressed concern over the offshore detention system, which the Human Rights Watch described as “causing immense harm”.
Since 2001, Australian authorities have sent 4,183 people to detention centres in Nauru or Papua New Guinea,
The Human Rights Law Centre in Australia said 14 people have died while in offshore detention in the past eight years, with death by suicide and attempted self-harm not uncommon.
Criticism has also grown in Australia of the economic cost of the offshore processing arrangement.
The Australian Government is expected to spend $811m on maintaining offshore detention at sites in Nauru and Papua New Guinea during the next year, to accommodate 233 people.
Australians are divided on the issue. An opinion poll conducted in 2017 by the Lowy Institute think-tank found 48 percent of Australians supported an immigration policy that refused any asylum seeker arriving by boat.
“A crack in all of the tyranny”
“Ruddock and Howard are the architects of two decades of human misery and suffering,” said Kon Karapanagiotidis, the founder of Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). The consequences of their decisions still haunt the discourse around asylum seekers, he said.
“They were able to fool the public into not understanding there was a compassionate way forward and to frame innocent people as criminals,” he said. “They understood the power of fear, and they used it to tell the public these people were a threat.”
But Karapanagiotidis said he believed public opinion towards asylum seekers could be changing. He pointed to the recent case of a Sri Lankan Tamil family – the Murugappans who were detained on Christmas Island for more than two years before a public outcry in June forced the government to grant the family temporary visas to work and study in Western Australia.
Priya and Nadesalingam Murugappan had met and married in Australia in 2014, after travelling separately to the country by boat in 2012 and 2013. The couple had fled in the wake of a bloody conflict in Sri Lanka and were given temporary protection visas while their claims for asylum were processed. They lived in the rural Queensland town of Biloela and had two children, but were arrested in 2018 when an earlier bridging visa granted to Priya expired.
Residents of the town rallied in support of the Murugappans, and more than half a million people signed a petition urging the family be allowed back in Biloela after their youngest child fell ill in immigration detention.
“The government has [previously] been able to tap into this idea of Australia as an island under siege, and so as advocates, we have been trying to push a narrative of compassionate values,” said Karapanagiotidis.
“The story of the Biloela family has cut through to the public, because when people get to know refugees, and welcome them into their communities, they can see themselves in them,” he said.
“It demonstrates that there is a crack in all of the tyranny and the cruelty, that people are outraged and appealing for change.”