In August 2001, the Howard Government of Australia refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 438 rescued refugees (predominantly Hazaras of Afghanistan from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters) to enter Australian waters. This triggered an Australian political controversy in the lead up to a federal election, and a diplomatic dispute between Australia and Norway.
When the Tampa entered Australian water, the Prime Minister ordered the ship be boarded by Australian special forces. This brought censure from the government of Norway, which said the Australian government failed to meet its obligations to distressed mariners under international law at the United Nations. Within a few days the government introduced the Border Protection Bill into the House of Representatives saying it will confirm Australian sovereignty to "determine who will enter and reside in Australia". The government introduced the so-called "Pacific Solution", whereby the asylum seekers were taken to Nauru where their refugee status was considered, rather than in Australia.
Rescue at sea
In 2001, increasing numbers of people attempted to travel to Australia by boat in order to seek asylum as refugees. Many of these arrived off Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, some 2000 km off the north-west coast of Australia and 500 km south of Jakarta, Indonesia. Hundreds of people arrived on tightly packed, unseaworthy vessels, and many were believed to have paid large amounts of money to people smugglers for their passage to Australia.
At dawn on 24 August 2001, a 20 metre wooden fishing boat, the Palapa 1, with 438 (369 men, 26 women and 43 children) mainly Hazara unauthorised arrivals became stranded in international waters about 140 km north of Christmas Island.
On 26 August, Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) Australia, which had been aware of the vessel's distress, possibly through Coastwatch surveillance, requested all ships in the area to respond. Of the ships that acknowledged the request, the Tampa was closest to the site and began to proceed towards the distressed Palapa 1.
According to international law, survivors of a shipwreck are to be taken to the closest suitable port for medical treatment. The closest suitable port was 12 hours away in Merak, Indonesia. Christmas Island was six or seven hours closer however it did not have the capability of receiving large shipping freighters.
The Australian rescue authorities had been the first to become aware of the vessel's distress, and for some time attempted to contact the relevant Indonesian authorities to attend to the rescue. RCC sent a fax to the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency (BASARNAS) on the night of 25 August but received no response. On Sunday, 26 August, Australian EST, the Australian embassy sent the naval attaché David Ramsay to visit BASARNAS. By this time, Australian surveillance had observed that the ship's passengers had fashioned signs that read "SOS" and 'HELP" on the ship's deck and, in response, further attempts were made to contact BASARNAS, first by fax and then through the defence attaché in Jakarta. At this time, DIMA called RCC 'asking if vessels that respond to Australian search and rescue broadcast can tow the stranded vessel to Indonesia'.
A call to shipping was broadcast at 12:48 Canberra time: "Subject: Distress Relay. A 35-metre Indonesian type vessel with 80 plus persons on board adrift in the vicinity of 09.32.5 south 104.44 east… vessel has SOS and HELP written on the roof. Vessels within 10 hours report best ETA and intentions to this station."
Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa responded to the mayday call: "We are on a voyage from Fremantle to Singapore via Sunda Strait… We have changed course and are headed for position of distress… Please advise further course of action. A Rinnan, Master." After an hour of setting course for the vessel, Rinnan received a direction from RCC apparently attempting to disown the rescue operation: "Please note that Indonesian search and rescue authorities have accepted co-ordination of this incident."
Rinnan re-counted in an interview with Norway Today:
They sent a plane to direct us to the sinking boat. When we arrived it was obvious to us that it was coming apart. Several of the refugees were obviously in a bad state and collapsed when they came on deck to us. 10 to 12 of them were unconscious, several had dysenteria and a pregnant woman suffered abdominal pains.
During the rescue, Rinnan received a call from Jakarta advising him to disembark the passengers at the ferry port of Merak, Indonesia.
About half an hour after the Tampa had set sail toward Indonesia, a delegation of five asylum seekers visited the bridge to demand passage to Australian territory, specifically Christmas Island, or any western country. The group was quite aggressive and agitated and Rinnan agreed to alter course for Christmas Island.
When interviewed by UK newspaper The Observer, Rinnan explained: "A delegation of five men came up to the bridge. They behaved aggressively and told us to go to Australia. They said they had nothing to lose."
The ship requested the Australian government's permission to unload the asylum seekers at Christmas Island, arguing that the ship could not sail to Indonesia, because it was unseaworthy — the ship was not designed for 438 people, only its 27 crew; and there were no lifeboats or other safety equipment available for the asylum seekers in the case of an emergency. The Australian government refused permission for the ship to enter Australia's territorial waters, and threatened to prosecute Captain Arne Rinnan as a people smuggler if it did so.
The Australian government denied any obligation under international law as Christmas Island lies within a zone designated as Indonesia's responsibility for rescue according to an agreement made in 1990 between Australia and Indonesia. Indonesia had also accepted coordination of the rescue, and the closest suitable port was Merak in Indonesia. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer explained to parliament that "It is important that people understand that Australia has no obligation under International law to accept the rescued persons in to Australian territory." Australian ambassador David Stuart said in the United Nations that "the rescue by the MV Tampa occurred outside the search and rescue region designated as being the responsibility of Australia." Although the Tampa had responded to a broadcast by an Australian rescue agency, on 30 August, Alexander Downer made a statement in parliament emphasising that the survivors were picked up: "at the direction of the Indonesian search and rescue authorities."
Faced with Australia's threats of prosecution, Captain Arne Rinnan agreed to turn slowly back towards Indonesia in the hope that the asylum seekers would not notice. About half an hour into the turn, however, they did notice and again became agitated. Captain Rinnan, concerned that if the ship continued to sail to Indonesia the asylum seekers could jump overboard or riot and harm the crew, decided to head back towards Christmas Island.
As the ship approached the boundary of Australia's territorial waters (12 nautical miles (22 km) from the island), Captain Arne Rinnan pleaded for permission for the ship to dock at Christmas Island. He would have been well aware that there are no port or docking facilities for shipping at Christmas Island. He reported that several of the asylum seekers were unconscious, and others were suffering from dysentery, statements subsequently supported by the SASR physician, but later disputed by Australian authorities. The Australian government provided medical assistance and food, but still refused permission for the ship to enter Australian territorial waters. The Australian government sent military personnel to Christmas Island, ostensibly to be ready to provide this assistance to the ship.
On 29 August, Captain Arne Rinnan, having lost patience with the Australian authorities, and increasingly concerned for the safety of the asylum seekers and the ship's crew, declared a state of emergency and proceeded to enter Australian territorial waters without permission. The legality of this action has been the subject of debate, with the Australian government maintaining that it was illegal.
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The Australian government responded by dispatching Australian troops (SASR) led by squadron commander Major Vance Khan, under Colonel Gus Gilmore, to board the ship and prevent it from approaching any closer to Christmas Island.
The SASR doctor later reported that the rescuees were generally dehydrated, malnourished and unhappy. Many were suffering from dehydration, exhaustion and minor ailments including sixty one cases of scabies, forty six of head lice, twenty four of gastroenteritis. They also attended to four pregnant women.
There were some disputes between the SASR and the ship's medical officer Christian Maltau, a deck officer with limited medical experience, regarding the deployment of medical supplies from the Tampa, and the use of the limited supplies of water. In one incident, the ship's officer turned off the ship's water supply while rescuees were being washed after an outbreak of diarrhoea.
Captain Arne Rinnan anchored approximately four nautical miles off Christmas Island. Shortly afterwards the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, reported the boarding of the ship to the Australian Parliament.
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The Australian troops instructed Captain Arne Rinnan to move the ship back into international waters; he refused, claiming the ship was unsafe to sail until the asylum seekers had been offloaded. The ship-owners said they agreed with his decision, and the Norwegian government warned the Australian government not to seek to force the ship to return to international waters against the captain's will.
The Australian government tried to persuade Indonesia to accept the asylum seekers; Indonesia refused. Norway also refused to accept the asylum seekers and reported Australia to the United Nations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Maritime Organisation for alleged failure to obey its duties under international law, though it did not ask for the assistance of these organisations.
Captain Rinnan received the highest civil honour in Norway as a result of his handling of this difficult incident. Rinnan has been a sailor since 1958, and a captain for 23 years. He said of the incident: "I have seen most of what there is to see in this profession, but what I experienced on this trip is the worst. When we asked for food and medicine for the refugees, the Australians sent commando troops on board. This created a very high tension among the refugees. After an hour of checking the refugees, the troops agreed to give medical assistance to some of them… The soldiers obviously didn't like their mission."
Border Protection Bill 2001
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Late on the night of 29 August, the Prime Minister introduced an emergency bill entitled the "Border Protection Bill 2001". This Bill would have provided the government with the power to remove any ship in the territorial waters of Australia (s 4), to use reasonable force to do so (s 5), to provide that any person who was on the ship may be forcibly returned to the ship (s 6), that no civil or criminal proceedings may be taken against the Australian government or any of its officers for removing the ship or returning people to it (s 7), that no court proceedings are available to prevent the ship from being removed and from people being returned to it (s 8), and that no asylum applications may be made by people on board the ship (s 9). The bill was intended to enter into force at 9h Australian Eastern Standard Time, 29 August 2001 (s 2); thus making the bill retroactive. It also attempted to ensure actions taken prior to legislation passage to remove ship and return people to it would have been treated as legal.
The Opposition Labor Party announced they would not support the bill; nor would the Greens, Democrats or independent Senator Brian Harradine. The bill quickly passed the lower House of Representatives, but was rejected by the Senate later that same sitting day. The Government attacked the Opposition for refusing to pass the legislation, but indicated it would not reintroduce it at that stage.
The government subsequently acted to excise Christmas Island and a large number of other coastal islands from Australia's migration zone, effectively meaning that any asylum seekers who did not reach the Australian mainland would not be able to apply for refugee status. The Labor party supported the excision of some islands that it viewed as acting as a "magnet for people smugglers", but not others, such as Melville Island, Northern Territory which it viewed as being too close to the mainland to justify excision. The other parties opposed excision of any islands.
Internationally, Australia was criticised by several countries, particularly Norway, who accused it of evading its human rights responsibilities.
Domestically, the government's line attracted strong support, especially in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. The Australian government’s popularity rating rose throughout the crisis. In the federal election following the arrival of the Tampa, the Liberal Party campaigned on the issue, with John Howard's statement "we decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come."
The Australian electorate largely supported the Government, though there was a comparatively smaller element of dissidents. Some television news polls in Australia showed as much as 90 percent support for the Australian government’s actions. Many viewed the asylum seekers as "queue-jumpers" falsely claiming to be refugees, and criminals who "hijacked" the Tampa in order to gain illegal entry into the country. There were concerns of a security risk involving a "floodgates" situation where people smugglers would deliberately target Australia as a perceived "soft target". Some public commentators, including then-Minister for Defence Peter Reith, suggested that groups of asylum seekers arriving by boat could harbour terrorists.
The issue also divided the Labor Party internally, with the Left faction of the party arguing strongly in favour of a "softer" approach, including the abolition of mandatory detention. The party leadership's compromise stance was pilloried by the Liberals as being wishy-washy and uncertain. Some critics accused the Howard government of employing wedge politics.
In July 2007, an unauthorised biography of John Howard claimed that he had received advice from the Attorney-General's Department that refusing the asylum seekers entry into Australia would breach international law, but that he did so to gain public support in the then upcoming election.
Fate of the refugees
The refugees from the Tampa were loaded onto a Royal Australian Navy vessel, HMAS Manoora, which transported them to the small island country of Nauru, where most were held in two detention camps, State House and Topside. They were eventually joined by hundreds of other asylum seekers, under Australia's "Pacific Solution". Approximately 150 people were diverted to New Zealand, where they were subsequently granted asylum and progress to citizenship. In 2004, following the war in Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq, the New Zealand government began to reunite their families.
When those refugees not claimed by New Zealand arrived on Nauru, many of them refused to leave the boat after several additional weeks on board waiting for temporary shelters to be constructed, recognising they were to be held in detention camps pending the adjudication of their cases. Those eventually found to be refugees were granted three-year temporary protection visas, under which they could be returned to their places of origin in Afghanistan and Iraq at a time of the government's choosing.
On 23 May 2004, it was reported that most Afghan asylum seekers on Nauru recently granted refugee status were likely to be resettled in Australia. The Federal Government decided to grant refugee status to 92 Afghans detained on the Pacific island nation, while 11 applications were refused.
Holders of a Temporary Protection Visa were not allowed to return home (without losing their visa status) and did not have access to the same services as normally recognized refugees (for example, free English language lessons and help with job search). Another small group was later accepted by New Zealand.
The crew of the Tampa received the Nansen Refugee Award for 2002 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for their involvement in the events. Captain Arne Rinnan was also named captain of the year by the shipping newspaper Lloyds List and Nautical Institute in London. 
- Statement by Australian Ambassador, UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY 56th SESSION, 27 November 2001
- "United Nations General Assembly– Fifty-sixth session" (PDF). United Nations. 27 November 2001. Retrieved 8 July 2006.
- Border Protection Bill 2001
- David Marr & Marian Wilkinson (2005). Dark Victory, p 30. ISBN 1-74114-447-7.
- Shadbolt, Peter. "Australians bar ship laden with Afghan refugees". The Telegraph(UK). Retrieved 23 July 2012.
- David Marr & Marian Wilkinson (2005). Dark Victory, p 26. ISBN 1-74114-447-7.
- "Tampa captain defends action". Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 6 September 2001.
- Burke, Jason (2 September 2001). "All Australia can offer is guano island". London: The Observer. Retrieved 24 May 2010.
- David Marr & Marian Wilkinson (2005). Dark Victory, p 31. ISBN 1-74114-447-7.
- "Question Without Notice". Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australian Government. 2001-08-28.
- "Oceans and the Law of the Sea". Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations. 27 November 2001.
- "Question Without Notice". Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australian Government. 2001-08-30.
- David Marr & Marian Wilkinson (2005). Dark Victory, p. 33. ISBN 1-74114-447-7.
- Senate Debates, 29 August 2001, p. 3566.
- Australia ships out Afghan refugees, BBC News, 3 September 2001.
- "Tampa Crisis". Infobase (Atlas). Heinemann Interactive. Retrieved 2006-07-15.
- "TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON PETER REITH MP: RADIO INTERVIEW WITH DERRYN HINCH – 3AK". 3AK. 13 September 2001. Retrieved 2 September 2011.
- See, for example, Pat Secker MP, House of Representatives Debates, 24 September 2001, p. 31282
- "Howard book refloats Tampa". news.com.au. 23 July 2007.
- Frame, Tom (2004). No Pleasure Cruise: the story of the Royal Australian Navy. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. p. 292. ISBN 1-74114-233-4. OCLC 55980812.
- Australia's Pacific Solution becomes "A Pacific Nightmare" Oxfam, August 2002
- Most Nauru refugees to be resettled, The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 2004
- Australia made direct cash payments to New Zealand for accepting those refugees it did accept.
- Decision of Justice North, Federal Court of Australia 11 September 2001
- Decision of Full Court overturning decision of Justice North, 18 September 2001
- David Marr & Marian Wilkinson Dark Victory. ISBN 1-74114-447-7
- Ian McPhedran "The Amazing SAS". ISBN 0-7322-7981-X
- News.com.au: Reflections by Julian Burnside on Tampa with public comments published to coincide with 5 year anniversary of the event
- Daniel Ross, Violent Democracy, ch. 5.