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The deck of MV Tampa, which was the blistering home of 433 refugees for too long, while the Howard government manipulated their fate
The deck of MV Tampa, which was the blistering home of 433 refugees for too long, while the Howard government manipulated their fate.

Five years on, the Tampa Drama continues

David Marr and Julian Burnside QC reflect on the 2001 Tampa scandal

It's the 28th of August 2006, and Tampa Day is once again upon us. Five years hence, the drama continues, now in the private lives of those refugees who eventually made it into Australia.

On this page, Sydney Morning Herald journalist and author David Marr catches up with some of the Tampa boys, who are now dispersed not just in scattered locales around Australia, but also in New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Canada. He also chats to Phil Glendenning, director of Sydney's Edmund Rice Centre, who recently travelled to Afghanistan to find some of the Tampa refugees we coerced to return to the godforsaken places they fled to find safety with us.

Following David Marr's work, we reprint an online debate teaser by Julian Burnside QC, written for the blog (online material now deleted). As per usual, eyes wide open, Mr Burnside invited comments and responses to his writing. From memory there was a lot of foul language, some deeply misinformed commentary on the status and rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and also some strong praise for Burnside's pro bono work in this area.

Related pages:

2 June 2007: David Marr: Careful, he might hear you - John Howard has ... cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced NGOs, censored the arts, prosecuted leakers, criminalised protest and curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, and this has happened because we let it happen.

22 January 2005 - A case of tsunamitis? Five eloquent thinkers and writers, Julian Burnside QC, Waleed Aly, Misha Schubert, Greg Barns and Anne Summers share their thoughts about the disaster and Australia's subsequent response to the international appeal. And in a late addition, AFL's CEO Andrew Demetriou joins the fray.

19 February 2004: Julian Burnside vs Amanda Vanstone - It was a full house when Julian Burnside QC, one of the most vigorous opponents of mandatory detention, went face to face against Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone at a Rotary breakfast held at the RACV Club in Melbourne, and directly accused her of crimes against humanity.

9 July 2003: Australia's Treatment Of Asylum Seekers: The View From Outside - A careful analysis of the criminal code therefore suggests that Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard are guilty of crimes against humanity by virtue of their imprisonment of asylum seekers, says Julian Burnside QC.

David Marr: The luck of the draw

Five years after their rescue, Tampa refugees in Australia are still living in limbo. David Marr reports.

Sydney Morning Herald
August 19, 2006

IN AN orchard in Toowoomba, in his restaurant in Milton, in an abattoir in Kingaroy, on building sites round Dandenong, in the lecture theatres of RMIT are people who were never supposed to come to this country.

They are Tampa refugees. Australia deployed the SAS and spent a billion dollars or more to keep them out. They're doing it hard, but they are here.

Five years ago next week, Arne Rinnan, the master of a Norwegian freighter, fished more than 400 people from a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean. They were Afghans fleeing the Taliban. For nine days they sat on the deck of the Tampa as Canberra faced down international demands to allow them ashore. The crisis galvanised support for the Howard Government at home and caught the attention of the world.

"We have always stood ready to take our fair share," said John Howard as he announced the survivors would be shipped to Nauru under a scheme he called the "Pacific solution". But an intensive diplomatic campaign followed to make sure none of the Tampa people came to this country, except as an absolute last resort. In the end, Canada took one, Norway two, Sweden seven, Australia 28 and New Zealand 208.

The anniversary of the rescue on August 26, 2001, is marked each year in Australia with scattered demonstrations against the Government's refugee policy. But Tampa Day in New Zealand has been attended by the Prime Minister, Helen Clark. Though the day fell last year in the midst of a tightly fought election campaign, she took three cabinet ministers with her to the celebrations.

Clark saved Howard's bacon in 2001. The Pacific solution would have collapsed without her. "We came to the conclusion that people couldn't sit on the deck of the ship forever," she told a citizenship ceremony last year for 76 Tampa refugees. "We all walk a fine line on this issue. We cannot be seen to encourage illegal migration, but we understand there are circumstances that force people to seek refuge somewhere else."

Tampa refugees are also now citizens of Canada, Norway and Sweden but not Australia. Wives and children have been allowed to join those accepted there - but so far, not in Australia. Everything is harder here - deliberately harder - for the handful of Tampa refugees who made it to these shores. They are still being punished.

Farid Abdullah, a young man who drove taxis in Brisbane, looks across the Tasman with envy. He was one of hundreds on Nauru assessed as a refugee but even now his future in Australia is uncertain. The Tampa people taken by Scandinavia, North America and New Zealand were all given permanent residency immediately. That wasn't Australia's way.

"We were given temporary visas," said Abdullah. "That's the difference. If everyone was in the same situation everyone would be happy." He is now in Western Australia looking for work as a driver in the mines, but his future here is only assured until his visa runs out in September 2008. "You can always be stressed and thinking you cannot settle down your life. You can't basically decide to do good thing and build up life. You life is not quite sure."

As Abdullah sat behind the wire of Nauru's Topside camp, he watched four or five batches of his fellow Tampa survivors leave for New Zealand - first the families and unaccompanied boys, later the single men. The news they sent back was good: homes, full social security, English lessons, special schooling for the kids, permanent residence and family reunion.

Forty of the boys were given mobile phones and told to find their families. "The phone bill was astronomical," said one of the managers of New Zealand's Department of Child Youth and Family Services. "But the outcome was phenomenal." Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and cousins began to arrive in New Zealand from all over the Middle East in March 2004.

Political opposition was unrelenting. Each intake of refugees and the arrival of their families was attacked by New Zealand's National Party as a waste, profligate and "immigration by stealth" that was turning the country into a "soft touch" for asylum seekers. The irony was that Clark found herself battling much the same political passions on one side of the Tasman that Howard was exploiting on the other. AFTER a year on Nauru, the rest of the Tampa people were going nowhere. As Australia kept scooping up boat people in the Indian Ocean, the camps on Nauru and Manus Island came to hold over 1500 people. By mid-2002, both Australia and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were urging Afghans in the camps to return home. The Taliban had "fallen" and once again their country was considered safe. In the end, 179 Tampa people threw in the towel and were flown back to Kabul.

Australia gave them $2000 each and a few nights in the Mustafa Hotel but most were Hazaras and found themselves facing the same old persecution all over again. "When we got to Kabul there were problems," said a Hazara who can only be identified as MR. "We were not free. We were in prison. [An Australian Immigration] person, a young woman, told us we would be safe. They told us there is a place for you in Afghanistan, they would help us get a job, a house and safety. All these claims were false. We were very disappointed."

This is one of a group of statements collected recently in Kabul by Phil Glendenning, director of Sydney's Edmund Rice Centre. His team was told that nine of the Afghans who returned from Nauru and Manus Island have since been killed. Others have been arrested or had family members killed. As it happens, none of the dead are from Tampa families, but Glendenning says: "We still haven't completed the task."

He believes most of the returned Afghans keep on the move to find work or stay out of harm's way. "I went from Kabul as soon as I could," said MR. "I went to my aunt's house, near my village. I was told by my relatives not to come here because a man had made a threat to my family to kill me. I fled to Pakistan with my family."

He now works as a house painter in Quetta. "Pakistan is like hell for me. I have no rights ... There is no school for my children. They can get no education. They are illiterate."

The Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, told the Herald she was waiting for "substantiating information to be provided by the Edmund Rice Centre" and claims this has not been done in the past. "When pressed for more detail, the centre has been unable to provide the relevant details needed."

Glendenning says: "This is the line they always run. The only thing we haven't given them is the names of people who believe their lives are in danger. The minister needs to speak to some members of her own department. We haven't discovered these places by accident." THE last of the Tampa people on Nauru were refusing to budge. All had refugee status and Australia was running out of places to park them. In a world awash with refugees, no country other than New Zealand was willing to "share the burden" of resettling the asylum seekers in the Pacific solution. The world's verdict was that these people were heading for Australia, were detained by Australia and remained Australia's responsibility.

Sweden and Canada took a handful, including eight Tampa people. Australia had still taken none. In a desperate last throw, the then minister for immigration, Philip Ruddock, appealed to the Norwegians. "While the events surrounding the MV Tampa caused a degree of disagreement between our governments," he wrote in early February 2003, "it is my firm belief that Australia and Norway can work together in close co-operation to achieve a satisfactory outcome in relation to this caseload."

The Norwegians thought otherwise. In July that year they told Ruddock they would take no more. "Norway was the last hope," a source told the Herald. "When they said no, it was all over."

The first batch of Tampa refugees was flown into Brisbane in September. More followed in dribs and drabs over the next year. Of the 433 men, women and children fished from the sea by the Tampa in August 2001, 28 finally made it to Australia by October 2004.

It was a triumph of determination. They'd beaten Canberra's best efforts to keep them out. But Canberra was not extending a New Zealand or Scandinavian welcome. They would have some benefits, including Medicare, but no guarantee that Australia was now their home. Their visas were good for only five years and then - in a system unique to Australia - they must apply for refugee status all over again.

Being alone and with no certain future in this country is a crushing burden for these men. Their lawyers talk of them experiencing a third wave of suffering: the first that drove them from their homeland, the second on Nauru and a now a third in Australia. But their resilience is extraordinary.

They are slow to talk about their difficulties. Few pitch their ambitions higher than leading a "normal" life. Many have families in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. They say being busy helps keep their fears at bay.

By now the Tampa people are scattered all over Australia, getting on with their lives - working in factories, driving taxis, studying. They are natural small-businessmen. A few months ago, Mehdi Zafar Es Haqzadah opened the Chopan Charcoal Restaurant in the Brisbane suburb of Milton.

His English is a mess. "I can't go to school because I support my family. They are there in Tehran."

Though Es Haqzadah's wife and two children also have refugee status, they can't join him here. "The Australian embassy said, 'Your husband doesn't have permanent visa."'

That's years away. "I want someone to help about this. Really, I want to just see my family. I just want my family to come. Five years is a long time. Sometime I'm thinking I go to bush to get early visa. I can't wait two years again."

With Afghans working in the bush winning such a good press, Vanstone relaxed the rules in 2004 to allow employers to sponsor some of them as permanent residents.

One man, Abbas, who works in a rural abattoir in Queensland, is one of five Tampa people who have now given up their refugee status and won permanent residency under the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme. "I have a very nice good plan for life in Australia," he said. "Work here. Save money."

Two of the five, armed with their new passports, are now in Pakistan seeing their wives and children for the first time in many years and making arrangements for their arrival in Australia - some time down the track. In New Zealand, the Tampa people have already been reunited with more than 200 family members. But they do things differently there.

For the anniversary next Saturday, the Norwegian embassy in Canberra will put out no flags. Also scrupulously low-key will be the Tampa's line, now called Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. They have no need to brag. The approval of the world in their tussle with Australia has been enough for them.

Five years after carrying out perhaps the most famous sea rescue of the age, the ship will be hard at work taking on cargo in Norfolk, Virginia.

And living in retirement far from the sea, Arne Rinnan will raise a glass. "It's history," he says "The world is going forward."

The Australian Government has no plans to make a big birthday gesture to the Tampa people. But couldn't we at least now give them the permanent residence other countries give all refugees from the start: the guarantee of a new home in a new country for the rest of their lives?

No, said Vanstone. "Australian laws do not permit the automatic granting of permanent residence to unauthorised boat arrivals."

In the Tampa confusion, we lost our moral bearings
By Julian Burnside QC
Monday, August 28, 2006, 10:08am

To mark this week's fifth anniversary of the Tampa crisis, is hosting a discussion on the event and its legacy. Mr Burnside will be answering your comments and questions. Join the debate by submitting yours below, or email: tampa(at)

On 26 August 2001, MV Tampa rescued 438 people whose boat, the Palapa, had sunk. It rescued them at the request of Australia. It acted according to the tradition of sailors the world over.

Apart from the 5 people smugglers on the boat, the people rescued by Tampa comprised for the most part terrified Hazaras from Afghanistan, men, women and children. They were fleeing the Taliban. We knew all this. We also knew that the Taliban were a brutal and repressive regime. We knew that Hazaras, one of the three ethnic groups in Afghanistan, had been persecuted for centuries, but that the persecution had become increasingly harsh under the Taliban who come from the Pashtun ethnic group.

The captain of Tampa asked for medical help. Many of the women and children were ill or injured. When Tampa entered Australian territorial waters at Christmas Island, Australia sent the SAS and took control of the ship, to prevent the refugees from coming ashore.

The arrival of the Tampa in Australian waters was misrepresented to the public as a threat to our national sovereignty. The notion that 438 terrified, persecuted men, women and children constitute a threat to national sovereignty is so bizarre that it defies discussion.

That Prime Minister John Howard could revive his flagging prospects in the looming federal election by using the SAS to keep those people from safety reflected a profound malaise in the Australian character.

The judgment in the Tampa case was handed down at 2.15pm AEST on 11 September 2001, nine hours before the terrorist attack on America. From that moment, the Government ran two different ideas together: border control and security. The catchcry "border protection" confuses national security with refugee policy. In that confusion we lost our moral bearings.

It is important to understand a few facts:

Immigration policy and refugee policy are entirely different things. Immigration policy reflects demographic, economic and social considerations. It is reasonable, when talking immigration policy, to say "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come". You may disagree with the the policy settings, but the principle is perfectly good as a statement of immigration policy.

Refugees have a quite different claim on our care. Refugees are fleeing persecution, torture or death in a place which is unsafe; and they seek protection. If they manage to get to Australia, we have an obligation under the Refugees Convention to protect them.

Australia's recent treatment of refugees has violated the values we once shared as a nation. It has damaged our reputation as a decent, hospitable country. It has tarnished our reputation internationally. Equally importantly, it has inflicted incalculable psychological harm on the refugees who came here already traumatised and were then gaoled without trial for months or years, not knowing when, if ever, they would be released.

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