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The Tampa affair 20 years on

Published: in Australian News by .

Twenty years ago, the seizure of the Tampa freighter on the high seas by elite Australian soldiers dramatically changed the country’s immigration policies.

Twenty years ago, the seizure of the Tampa freighter on the high seas by elite Australian soldiers dramatically changed the country's immigration policies.

And the effects of the Tampa affair, as it became known, continue to be felt today, according to a former military commander in the Special Air Service who was tasked with boarding the Norwegian cargo ship that carried 438 asylum seekers.

In August 2001, Peter Tinley was second-in-command of the SAS counter-terrorism troops deployed to Christmas Island by the government of then prime minister John Howard to keep the Tampa away.

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He oversaw the military operation that involved 45 heavily armed soldiers boarding the vessel on August 29, 2001, after the ship's unauthorised entry into Australian waters.

'Political situation'

But Mr Tinley, who is today a Labor MP in Western Australia and former state minister, told nine.com.au the political dimensions of the Tampa affair are his strongest memories.

"Once we got there, I began to realise that this was a political situation, as opposed to a strict military tactical situation. And we had to play our role and serve the government of the day in whatever wishes it gave us direction to do," he said.

"We arrived on the basis that we had to consider all the possible options - the threat profiles, as we called them - that we might be confronted (by) going onto the Tampa."

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Mr Tinley said the SAS unit that seized the Tampa was heavily armed and prepared for a possible violent opposition.

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"What, in fact, the guys found when they got on board was 400-plus ordinary refugees, very hungry, some who needed some medical attention, very scared and uncertain about what was happening, a particularly concerned sea captain who just wanted to offload his human cargo and discharge his duty according to international law."

Mr Tinley has long maintained that deploying the SAS was an overreaction by the Howard government.

"I can't help but feel the PM John Howard viewed the SAS as something that would resonate politically to the message of border security," he said.

But Mr Howard insisted his government's response in the Tampa affair was necessary to deter people attempting to reach Australia by boat, and save lives.

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He told nine.com.au this week that while Australians support immigration, they expect the government to control it.

"It was decisive action which defined the determination of my government to maintain the integrity of our immigration policy," Mr Howard said in a statement.

"The Australian people will always support a large immigration program if it believes that the government will properly control the flow of immigrants."

'Fortress Australia'

Mr Tinley says the Howard government's response to the Tampa incident was one example of the "Fortress Australia" policy that has been repeated by his successors.

"That policy proves popular with the public - and plays on a sense of jingoism dating back to World War II," he said.

Mr Tinley pointed to how the current Federal Government wheeled out a similar response during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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He admits the Morrison Government's swift move to close international borders does have some merits.

"It has been politically convenient for the prime minister to resurrect Fortress Australia. And many people supported the move."

Below are the key events of the Tampa affair and an explanation of how it changed Australia's policy to asylum seekers.

Distress call

On August 26, 2001, the MV Tampa rescued 433 people, many of them Afghans, from a damaged fishing boat, Palapa 1, in the Indian Ocean.

The Palapa had been at sea for three days, having set out from Java in an attempt to reach Christmas Island where passengers planned to apply for asylum.

Australian authorities had sent out the call for the boat to be rescued.

Urgent request to dock

The Tampa's captain Arne Rinnan intended to take the rescued people to an Indonesian port but after desperate requests by some asylum seekers, he changed his plans and headed to Christmas Island.

As the ship prepared to enter Australian territory, Captain Rinnan requested permission to dock at Christmas Island, saying several of the asylum seekers were seriously ill.

While the federal government provided food and medical supplies, it insisted the Tampa could not dock at Christmas Island. Then prime minister John Howard pledged that none of the asylum seekers would be allowed to set foot on Australian soil.

Frustrated by Australian officials, Captain Rinnan declared an emergency and entered Australian waters without permission.

The Federal Government responded by ordering the SAS to board and seize the vessel.

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What happened to the asylum seekers on the Tampa?

After the SAS soldiers boarded the vessel, the asylum seekers were held on an Australian navy ship.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government passed a series of legislation known as the Pacific Solution.

The laws meant asylum seekers arriving by boat could be processed offshore.

Within a few days and after diplomatic lobbying, New Zealand and Nauru agreed to take the asylum seekers and process their claims for refugee status.

While 150 were moved to New Zealand, the others stayed on Nauru, some for up to three years.

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Some whose applications for refugee status succeeded eventually settled in Australia.

The Tampa affair and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US made immigration and national security a major policy feature of that year's Australian federal election.

In November 2001, Mr Howard's Coalition government was reelected.

The Pacific Solution policy of processing asylum seekers offshore has been a bedrock of Australian government policy since 2001.

Source: 9News https://www.9news.com.au/national/the-tampa-affair-twenty-years-on-how-it-changed-australia/db15c5d0-3049-46f3-b89d-169b148a2d5d

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