It was 20 years ago today that the “Tampa incident” occurred. That began a series of actions that has left a permanent stain of shame on the national identity of Australia.
The “Tampa incident” involved the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter which was sailing in the Indian Ocean, and a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1. The Indonesian fishing boat had left from Indonesia a few days earlier with 438 asylum seekers aboard. The boat was heading to Christmas Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As that island was part of Australia, the asylum seekers were aiming to land there so that they could make new lives in Australia, eventually on the mainland.
On 26 August 2001, the engines of the fishing boat stalled in international waters between Indonesia and Australia. The Palapa lay stranded for three days. The Australian Coast Guard put out a call for boats in the area to rescue the people on the boat. The MV Tampa was plying its commercial route in the Indian Ocean, so it headed for the Palapa and rescued 433 of the 438 people who were aboard the stranded boat.
On board the Tampa, the Norwegian crew set up makeshift accommodation and bathrooms on the deck, out in the open air. Indonesia have permission for the Tampa to return passengers to the Indonesian port of Merak. Those on board became distressed at this news. The captain of the ship, Arne Rhinnan, met with a delegation from the asylum seekers, who asked to be taken to Christmas Island (four hours away) rather than being returned to Indonesia (11 hours away).
Rhinnan told the coast guard he planned to take the rescuees to Christmas Island. Most of the refugees were Hazaras from Afghanistan. To be returned to their country would mean certain death for those fleeing the political situation of their homeland. To be allowed to land in Australia would mean life—a new life, in a new land, a new start. It would mean everything.
It’s a wonderful story. It’s the Gospel in action. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, acted out in a different setting and a different time—our time. It’s reaching out in love and concern to people whose lives were in imminent danger. It’s embracing the stranger, the homeless, and taking them in.
I love the welcoming actions of Arne Rhinnan and his sailors, in taking the asylum seekers on board, feeding them, giving them water and shelter, advocating for them. It’s exactly what Jesus advocated in his command to “love your neighbour” (Mark 12) and his story about “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Matt 25).
Except that’s not the end of the story. The intransigence of the Australian Government soon became evident. Within hours, the Tampa was told it was prohibited from entering Australian waters. The penalty for doing so would be the imprisonment of Rhinnan and fines of up to A$110,000. A stalemate ensued. The captain of the Tamp had to decide what to do with the asylum seekers now on board that ship.
Australia’s policy to this point had been to rescue asylum seekers at sea and detain them in Australia while their claims for protection were processed. Success in this process would mean release into the community on permanent protection visas. Failure would mean being returned to their country of origin.
But the Federal Government changed their practices. Enter the practice of “boat turnbacks”. Boats carrying asylum seekers were called Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs. No SIEVs were to be allowed to enter Australian waters. No asylum seekers on boats were to land on Australian shores. The Government had set the course for the next two decades of rejection and stereotyping of asylum seekers as “illegal” (which they weren’t, and aren’t, under international law).
And boat turnbacks morphed into border control. And Immigration, a federal department, transformed into Border Protection. And Labor governments (2007–2013) followed the practice of conservative governments (2001–2007, continued from 2013 onwards) in refusing entry to “boat arrivals”—even though there were thousands of “plane arrivals” each year, and they all managed to enter Australia. And the success of a certain Minister for Immigration and Border Protection would catapult him into the leadership of the nation.
It’s the exact flip side of the parable of Jesus—those who fail to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, those who fail to give shelter to the homeless—these are the ones who fail to recognise Jesus in “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matt 25:45). These are the one to who Jesus declares that their fate is, “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. That’s in the story that Jesus told.
But in the story of the Palapa and the Tampa, the Norwegian sailors and the Afghani asylum seekers, a very different fate lay in store.
The shameful saga of the claims about “children overboard” took hold in the public narrative. The claims were later proven to be entirely confected. But the stigma attached to the asylum seekers took hold. It exacerbated the racist denigration and discrimination that had been fostered already in Australia by Pauline Hanson in 1997–98, and which Prime Minister Howard refused to condemn or even to address.
None of the asylum seekers came to Australia. An Australian naval vessel collected them and took them to Nauru. Some were then taken to Aotearoa New Zealand. A small number were eventually given entry to Australia, some years later, under very limited restrictions.
Of course, the history of Australia over the past 250 years has been one in which racist discrimination has occurred again and again. The people who travelled on the First Fleet and set about making their new life beside Sydney Cove were not benign colonial settlers; they were the violent imperial invaders.
The “settlement” of the “colony” in 1788, bringing the overflow British population of petty criminals, was an illegal invasion by imperial forces. They established a society that took land, raised lynch mobs, murdered Aboriginal people, executed massacres, built mission ghettos, and managed to all but eliminate the indigenous peoples who had lived on the continent and its islands for millennia.
However, in the outback of Australia, Afghan camel handlers had long plied their trade. In the mid century gold rushes, Chinese prospectors worked alongside English and Scottish men. Indeed, on the First Fleet, there had been eight Jewish convicts as well as eleven convicts of Afro-American heritage. Australia had been “a multicultural society” since the very beginning of the British imperial invasion and settlement, to establish their colony.
When Australia became a nation in 1901, one of the earliest legislative acts was to establish “the White Australia Policy”, which lasted into the 1970s. Blacks and Asians were under no illusion that they were not welcome. The dictation test was set up to ensure that non-English speakers would fail and thus not be granted entry.
Yet tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were taken to Australia to work on plantations in Queensland, often by force or trickery, in the mid to late 19th century. They existed in slavery in this country; it was not the land of “the young and free”. Right up to 2020 there had been thousands of Pacific Islander seasonal workers, caught into slave-labour conditions, picking fruit on Australian farms.
And the Chinese who had worked in the goldfields and across the country in countless towns had suffered under the press of stereotyping and vilification throughout the 19th century; this surfaced in a new form with the claims of the “yellow peril” threat in the 20th century.
And throughout all of this, the First Peoples of this continent and its hundreds of associated islands were marginalised, mistreated, and massacred; their children were stolen, their jobs were unpaid, their health suffered, their reputation was disfigured.
The incident involving the Palapa and the Tampa was not a one-off, unusual occurrence. It actually taps deep into the Australian psyche that has been fostered in various ways since 1788. It is a continuing shame that stains our conscience and disfigures our society. It provides a warning, a rebuke, a challenge. Is this really who we are? who we want to be? who we should be?
Twenty years years on from the Palapa and the Tampa, and the dishonesty of “children overboard”, it is time to reconsider—to leave behind the racist discrimination and vilification that has too often been evident in Australian society. It is time we became something different.
For more discussion of the Tampa incident and its consequences, see: