MV Tampa

From Academic Kids

Template:Update The MV Tampa is a Norwegian cargo ship that was at the center of a diplomatic dispute between Australia, Norway, and Indonesia off the coast of Christmas Island.

During the year 2001 Australia had an increasing incidence of people arriving on boats to apply for asylum in Australia. Many of these came from Indonesia to Christmas Island, an Australian possession in the Indian Ocean, some 2000km off the north-west coast of Australia and south of Indonesia. Hundreds of people arrived on tightly packed, leaky boats.



At dawn on August 24, 2001, a 20 metre wooden fishing boat, the Palapa, with 460 mainly Afghan asylum seekers became stranded about 140 km north of Christmas Island.

On the August 26 Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) Australia had become aware of the vessel's distress for some time and finally had asked all ships in the area to respond. Of the ships that responded, the Tampa was closest to the site and rescued the asylum seekers. According to international law, surviviours of a shipwreck are to be taken to the closest port for medical treatment, in this case; Christmas Island.

When interviewed by Norway Today, Captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, reveals:

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.
First we were told to bring them to Christmas Island, then they changed their minds and said that the refugees were not allowed to disembark at any account. I got mad.

Rinnan has been a sailor since 1958, and a captain for 23 years.

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 onboard. 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.

The ship approached the boundary of Australia's territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the island) and requested the Australian government's permission to unload the asylum seekers at Christmas Island. The Australian government however refused permission for the ship to enter Australia's territorial waters, arguing that Christmas Island did not have facilities for the ship to dock, and that the rescue occurred in part of the high seas for which Indonesia had search and rescue responsibilties, and that hence they should go to Indonesia instead.

Captain Rinnan pleaded for permission for the ship to dock at Christmas Island. He reported that several of the asylum seekers were unconscious, and others were suffering from dysentery, claims which were later disputed. According to later Australian government claims, the refugees were in relatively good health. However a few were quite ill by the time they arrived in New Zealand, so this matter is still unclear. The Captain said 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. He was also concerned that if the ship did try to sail to Indonesia the asylum seekers could try jumping overboard or rioting and harm the crew.

The Australian government promised the provision of 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 August 29 Captain Rinnan, having lost patience with the Australian authorities, and increasingly concerned for the safety of the asylum seekers and the ships' crew, declared a state of emergency and proceeded to enter Australian territorial waters, against Australian government orders not to. The Australian government claimed this was illegal, but under normal law of the sea, and Australian law at the time, it probably wasn't unless it can be established that he was falsely claiming an emergency. As of October 2001, this has not been established.

The Australian government then responded by dispatching Australian troops (35 SAS commandos) to board the ship and prevent it from approaching any further to Christmas Island. The Australian government was seeking to stop any of the asylum seekers from applying for asylum, which they could legally do as soon as they stepped foot on Australian territory. The soldiers boarded the ship and Captain Rinnan then anchored it 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.

The Australian troops instructed Captain 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 shipowners 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 refused to accept them either, because of the distance between the ship and Norway, 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 organizations.

Captain Arne Rinnan received the highest civil honour in Norway as a result of his handling of this difficult incident. All the companies who had cargo on Tampa congratulated Captain Rinnan, despite the various cargos having been delayed by 10 days. Australia threatened to prosecute Captain Rinnan as a people smuggler.

Border Protection Bill 2001

Late on the night of August 29, the Prime Minister introduced an emergency bill entitled the "Border Protection Bill 2001". This Bill, provides 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 officer 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 provides for it to enter into force on at 9 am. Australian Eastern Standard Time, 29 August 2001 (s. 2); thus the bill is retroactive; it also provides that any action taken prior to the legislation being passed to remove any ship and return people to it are 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 at 2:05 am ACT time on August 30, after which the Senate adjourned. The Government attacked the Opposition for refusing to pass the legislation, but indicated it would not reintroduce it at this stage.

The government has since acted to excise Christmas Island and a large number of other costal islands from Australia's migration zone, effectively meaning that any asylum seekers who do not reach the Australian mainland will 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, which it viewed as being too close to the mainland to justify excision. The other parties opposed excision of any islands.

Political effects

The Tampa crisis had an enormous effect on Australia both at home and abroad. Internationally, Australia was criticised by many countries, particularly Norway, who accused it of evading its human rights responsibilities. Australia's stance did attract some support from countries such as the United Kingdom that faced similar immigration problems.

Domestically, the government's line attracted strong support, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Australian government’s popularity rating rose accordingly throughout the crisis. [1] ( In the federal election narrowly following the arrival of the Tampa, the Liberal Party campaigned vigorously on the issue, with John Howard's statement "we decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come" acting as the party's de facto election slogan.

Meanwhile, broader Australian society was bitterly divided. Television news polls in Australia showed up to 90 percent support for the Australian government’s actions. [2] ( Many viewed the asylum seekers as "queue-jumpers", falsely claiming to be refugees 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 went so far to claim that the group could be harboring terrorists. One the other hand, human rights organisations, religious groups, and other organisations, deeply concerned at what they saw as an appalling lack of compassion on the part of the government, vocally campaigned for the acceptance of the asylum seekers as legitimate refugees. Rallies in support of the Tampa asylum seekers, as well as others interned in detention centres in Woomera and elsewhere, occurred around the country.

The issue also wedged 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. Labor's vote in the election suffered heavily - middle-class intellectuals, disgusted by what they saw as complicity in the government's "refugee-bashing", deserted the party for the Greens, while working-class support ebbed away in favour of the Liberals' hard line. The issue persists as a divisive and electorally dangerous one for the Labor party.

Fate of the refugees

The refugees from the Tampa were loaded onto an Australian Navy vessel called Manoora. Most were transported to the small island country of Nauru and the rest, approximately 150 people, 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 accepted by New Zealand arrived on Nauru, many of them refused to leave the boat, unhappy that, whilst they have found a refuge, it is not in Australia. Many of the immigrants are believed to have given thousands of dollars to people smugglers to be taken to Australia. Those eventually found to be genuine refugees were granted three-year temporary protection visas, by which they could be returned to their places of origin in Afghanistan and Iraq at a time of the government's choosing. The holders of the Temporary Protection Visa are not allowed to return home and don't have access to the same services as normally recognized refugees (e.g. free English language lessons and help with job search).

Nansen Refugee Award

The crew of the Tampa received the Nansen Refugee Award for 2002 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for their efforts to follow international principles of saving people in distress at sea, despite repeated threats of imprisonment and confiscation of the ship from the Australian government.

Legal Cases

Further Reading


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