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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 hard line 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.
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”.

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”.

‘Integrity manager’
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 mean 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 centers in 2007, the prime
minister back flipped 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 hard line 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 centers 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.”

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