In August 2001, under Captain Arne Rinnan, a diplomatic dispute brewed between Australia, Norway, and Indonesia after Tampa had rescued 439 Afghans from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters. The Afghans wanted passage to nearby Christmas Island. The Australian government sought to prevent this by refusing Tampa entry into Australian waters, insisting on their disembarkment elsewhere, and deploying the SASR to board the ship. At the time of the incident, Tampa carried $20 million AUD worth of cargo and 27 crew.
In October 2006 the vessel was involved in a cocaine smuggling incident after metal containers were found attached to its hulls while in Auckland Harbour. The Australian Federal Police said neither the shipping line nor any of its employees were involved.
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 August 24, 2001, a 20 metre wooden fishing boat, the Palapa 1, with 438 (369 men, 26 women and 43 children) mainly Afghan unauthorised arrivals became stranded in international waters about 140 km north of Christmas Island.
On August 26, 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 port for medical treatment, which in this case was Christmas Island (Christmas Island was or approximately 4 hours from the point of rescue. Merak, the Indonesian port offered by Indonesia after lobbying by the Australian Government, was 12 hours away. Ref: Dark Victory, page 20).
The Australian rescue authorities had been the first to become aware of the vessel's distress, and for some time attempted to have the Indonesian authorities attend to the rescue. RCC sent a fax to the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency (BASARNAS) on the night of August 25 but received no response. On Sunday August 26 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 had 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 pm 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 Rinnan 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."
The Tampa reached the vessel, guided by Australian Coastwatch de Havilland Dash-8, at about 2 pm. The first child was lifted to safety at 2:30pm and the rescue operation continued all afternoon.
Captain Rinnan re-counted in an interview with Norway Today:
During the rescue, Rinnan received a call from Jakarta advising him to disembark the passengers at the ferry port of Merak.
After Rinnan had set sail toward Indonesia, a delegation of asylum seekers visited the bridge to demand passage to Australian territory, specifically Christmas Island. 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." Although the Tampa had responded to a broadcast by an Australian rescue agency, on August 30, Alexander Downer made a statement in parliament emphasising that the survivors were picked up: "at the direction of the Indonesian search and rescue authorities".
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 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 Australian government denied any obligation under international law. 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."
Christmas Island, an Australian territory, lies within a zone designated as Indonesia's responsibility for rescue according to an agreement made in 1990 between Australia and Indonesia. The agreement recognises that Indonesia may be best placed to respond in that zone, but it does not oblige Indonesia to make rescues in the designated zone. Clive Davidson, chief executive officer of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident that "The responsibility of all search and rescue agencies around the world is to respond comprehensively and completely to every search and rescue event, wherever they may be".
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, statements that were later disputed. According to later Australian government claims, the asylum seekers 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 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 August 29 Captain 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.
The Australian government then responded by dispatching Australian troops (SASR) lead by squadron commander Major Vance Khan, under Colonel Gus Gilmore, 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 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. Several Australian soldiers also contracted diarrhoea during the boarding episode.
The crew of the Tampa had refused to allow the boat people to use their toilets or go anywhere near their accommodation.
Captain 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.
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 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 them 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 organisations.
Captain Arne Rinnan received the highest civil honour in Norway as a result of his handling of this difficult incident. Australia threatened to prosecute Captain Rinnan as a people smuggler. Later on his last voyage to Australia he was treated to a Water salute on Sydney Harbour.
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, which it viewed as being too close to the mainland to justify excision. The other parties opposed excision of any islands.
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 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 vigorously on the issue, with John Howard's statement "we decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come." Meanwhile, the Australian electorate largely supported its Government, though there was a comparatively smaller element of dissidents. Television news polls in Australia showed up to 90 percent support for the Australian government’s actions. 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, including the then-Minister for Defence Peter Reith, went so far to claim that the group could be harbouring terrorists. On the other hand, human rights organisations, religious groups, and left-wing 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. Many 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.
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 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.
On May 23 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 Afghanis detained on the Pacific island nation, while 11 applications were refused.
Holders of the Temporary Protection Visa are not allowed to return home (without losing their visa status) and do 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. As of August 2005, 32 people still remained in camps on Nauru from the Tampa and other ships.
Australia made direct cash payments to New Zealand for accepting those refugees it did accept.
In March 2008 12 year old Abbas Nazari who, as a six year old, had been one of the Afghani refugees picked up by the MV Tampa and subsequently refused asylum in Australia, came third in a New Zealand schools' spelling competition. Interviewed after the competition he commented The whole thing occurred around 9/11, the Australian government had its reasons to not provide a refuge for us ...Australia didn’t want us because they thought we were terrorists ... but New Zealand listened to us and they thought we weren’t terrorist ‘n’ stuff.
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.
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