Australia: Tampa to the Rescue

Commonwealth leaders meeting in Australia may detect a touch of bitterness in the country’s normal friendly welcome. The fate of some four hundred asylum-seekers has sparked deep anxiety about ‘foreign hoards’. The issue is now at the heart of the election campaign, which is likely to begin in earnest as soon as the visiting heads of government have left.

The World Today
Published 1 October 2001 Updated 26 October 2020 4 minute READ

Keith Suter

Director of Studies, International Law Association (Australian Branch)

On August 26 the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa rescued 430 people from a boat that was sinking a hundred and forty kilometres north of Australia’s west coast. The mainly Afghan asylum-seekers on board had journeyed to Indonesia and then tried to sail to Australia, before running into trouble. The Tampa sought permission to land them on the Australian territory of Christmas Island, near Indonesia.

But Prime Minister John Howard refused permission. He said that they had to go to Indonesia, because they were rescued in Indonesian waters, or the Tampa could take them to Norway. The Prime Minister dug his heels in – and most Australians apparently supported him. The more international criticism the country attracted for its obstinacy and its failure to abide by international law, the more determined the government became.

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