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Australian Themes › Population › Tampa Crisis

Age level:        11-13

Political and social issues related to the arrival of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers on Australia’s northern shores have long been the subject of debate. In late August 2001 the actions of the Australian Government in relation to the treatment and handling of what it has termed 'illegal immigrants' brought these issues into stark relief.

The scene of the dramatic events (Christmas Island, an Australian territory located to the north-west of the Australian mainland) can be seen on page 106 of the Heinemann Atlas 3rd edn (map reference D5).

The seeds of what has since come to be known as the ‘Tampa Crisis’ were sown on Sunday 26 August 2001. In a traditional act of maritime responsibility, the captain of the Tampa, a Norwegian tanker, took aboard his ship 438 people from a sinking wooden vessel. This group of (mostly Afghan) people was the latest in a growing stream of refugees making the journey south from Indonesia to seek asylum in Australia.

At the time of the sea rescue, the Tampa was located approximately 140 kilometres northwest of Christmas Island. Given his proximity to Indonesia, the captain of the Tampa decided to head there with his new passengers. However, the captain later claimed that those he had rescued declared that they would throw themselves overboard unless he steered the Tampa towards Christmas Island. Consequently the captain notified the Australian authorities that he was heading towards Christmas Island, and that some of his passengers needed urgent medical attention.

However, the Australian Government refused to allow the asylum seekers to land on Australian territory. Since the Tampa had picked up its 438 passengers in the Indonesian sea-rescue zone, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard claimed that the asylum seekers were not Australia’s problem. He was quoted as saying:

It is our view that, as a matter of international law, this matter is something that must be resolved between the Government of Indonesia and the Government of Norway.

This, combined with the fact that neither Indonesia nor Norway made moves to accommodate the asylum seekers, effectively meant that all three countries absolved themselves of responsibility for the Tampa’s human cargo. At the same time, the Norwegian owners of the vessel supported the actions of their captain and ordered him to remain where he was until a diplomatic solution could be found. Thus, the Tampa entered a virtual state of limbo anchored 12 nautical miles from Christmas Island.

The subsequent boarding and take-over of the ship by 49 fully armed members of Australia’s SAS in the first days of the diplomatic standoff was reported as an extreme action in some sections of the world’s media. The stand taken by Australia’s Federal Government drew criticism from other quarters, including the Norwegian President and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Interestingly, some television news polls reported that as much as 90% of the Australian population supported its government’s actions. The Australian Government’s approval rating rose steadily during the crisis.

After ten days, and just as it appeared that the stalemate over the fate of the asylum seekers would continue to drag on, a diplomatic solution was achieved. The Australian Government struck a deal with Pacific Island nations of Nauru (page 107 of the Atlas, map reference J7) and New Zealand, who agreed to house the Tampa’s asylum seekers whilst the Australian Government processed their claims to live in Australia. The Tampa’s passengers were finally transferred to the Royal Australian Navy ship HMAS Manoora, and the standoff was at its end. 

The Australian Government promised to deliver $20 million of aid to Nauru (the equivalent of 20% of its gross domestic product) in return for its acceptance of the asylum seekers. Australian Army engineers were sent to Nauru to establish temporary accommodation for the asylum seekers, with all costs associated with their stay in Nauru to be met by the Australian Government. Eventually, 520 asylum seekers headed for Nauru, with another 150 on their way to New Zealand. 

The actions of the Australian Government throughout the Tampa Crisis beg questions about a long-term solution to the illegal immigration issue. The number of illegal immigrants received by Australia, whilst steadily growing over recent months, is still relatively small compared to that in some other parts of the world. Thousands more immigrants attempt to cross illegally into the United States from Mexico every year, whilst an equally large number enter the United Kingdom from various parts of the European continent. Whilst relatively tight border controls exist in these areas, Australia’s expansive coastline means that the Australian Government will have to seek a grassroots solution. Federal Australian ministers have recently visited their Indonesian counterparts to try and find a way of addressing the problem of people smuggling nearer its source.

Related subtopic/s:
Ashmore Reef
Ashmore Reef and the Refugee Debate
Australia's Future Population
Indian Diaspora