An international incident involving the Australian Government, Norway, Indonesia and a boatload of refugees aboard a Norweigan cargo ship.
On August 25th 2001 an Australian surveillance aircraft spotted a sinking ferry travelling between Indonesia and Australia. The Norweigan ship the Tampa was alerted to its location and rescued 438 passengers from the ferry. When the captain informed the rescued passengers that he was taking them to Indonesia they became extremely agitated to the extent that the captain decided to take them to Christmas Island, an Australian possession, instead.
Although Christmas Island is a habitual landing place for refugees and illegal immigrants headed for Australia, Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced that the people aboard the Tampa would be denied entry to Australian waters and that the problem was in the hands of Indonesia and Norway. This promped a protest aboard the ship resulting in a stalemate in which the ship sat immobile off the coast of Christmas Island.
Conditions worsened aboard the Tampa until the Australian Government ordered commandos to storm the ship and take control of it. The asylum seekers as they became known were then transferred to third party nations including Norway and New Zealand for processing as refugees.
The incident was notable for a number of reasons:
- It marked a sharp shift to the right in Australian immigration policy
- It caused a furore over international rights and obligations
- It polarised opinion within Australia on questions of immigration and refugees
- The subsequent election victory of incumbent John Howard's conservative Liberal Party was widely linked to the incident
- It later came to light that the government had spied on communications between the Tampa and lawyers and other groups in Australia, and it was claimed that this was used as a policy making tool, raising serious questions about the role of intelligence in Australia
- It prompted the Australian Government to rush through retroactive legislation to legalise its own actions following legal challenges
It is intersting to note that a large proportion of those on board the Tampa were from Afghanistan, hardly a safe place to live after September 11 (thanks to Impartial for pointing that out).