Australians don’t fully understand what is being done in their name

880 0

Julian Burnside

The Norwegian freighter Tampa. Photo: Reuters
The Norwegian freighter Tampa. Photo: Reuters

Misinformation and dishonesty abounds over asylum seekers.
ON AUGUST 26, 2001, a small fishing boat called Palapa I began to sink in the Indian Ocean. Ordinarily, it would have been fit to carry 20 or 30 people.
On board were 433 asylum seekers, mostly Hazaras escaping the Taliban and trying to reach Australia.
The Norwegian cargo ship Tampa rescued them. When Tampa tried to put them ashore on Christmas Island, the SAS took control of the ship at gunpoint.

A Federal Court judge ruled that the government was obliged to bring the asylum seekers ashore and assess their claims for asylum. That decision was handed down at 2.15pm, Melbourne time, on September 11, 2001: a date which significantly altered the political calculus.
A week later, the full Federal Court reversed that decision.
The people rescued by Tampa were taken to Nauru. By early 2002, Australia was forcing Afghans to return to Afghanistan, saying the Taliban were defeated and Afghanistan was safe for Hazaras. On August 26, 2002, the Tampa refugees were preparing to commemorate the first anniversary of their rescue. One of them, 20 year-old Mohammad Sarwar, awoke that morning, cried out and fell back dead. His friends told me that he died of a broken heart: he had just been refused protection. Australia continued to force Afghans held on Nauru to return to Afghanistan.
The Tampa episode was the start of Australia’s conspicuously harsh approach to boat people. The idea was to “send a message”, and the message was: we do not want you asking for our help.
It is a melancholy fact that John Howard’s government made political capital by its treatment of boat people. The 2001 election turned on the issue. But it depended on misinformation and dishonesty.
Ten years on, we are behaving just as badly as we did at the time of Tampa. Instead of hijacking people at sea and sending them to Nauru, we plan to divert them to Malaysia. Labor doesn’t care that Malaysia has not signed the Refugees’ Convention. It doesn’t care that Malaysia has a bad track record with human rights generally and asylum seekers in particular. Although Malaysia has agreed not to mistreat the people we plan to send there, that agreement is incapable of being supervised or enforced. A fall-back plan is to send them to Manus Island: a malaria-ridden, northern outpost of Papua New Guinea.
To understand what has happened since the time of Tampa, we need to start with a few simple facts. Boat people are not “illegal” in any sense. There are no queues in the places they flee from. They come in very small numbers. Asylum seekers who come by plane outnumber boat arrivals about three to one. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are, historically, very likely to be assessed as genuine refugees; those who come by plane are, historically, unlikely to be assessed as genuine refugees. However, asylum seekers who come by boat are held in detention, whereas those who come by plane are not: we treat most harshly those who are most likely to be traumatised already and most likely to be lawfully entitled to our protection.
Why do we do this? What is it about our national character that explains such cruel, illogical behaviour? Simple: the politicians do it for political gain, and most Australians do not fully understand what is being done in their name. When Tampa sailed into Australian domestic politics a decade ago, the coalition was deeply worried about the drift of hard-right, anti-immigration voters to One Nation. Jackie Kelly confronted Howard with exactly this concern as he was entering the Parliament to deliver a speech about dealing with the Tampa. He waved his speech at her and said, in effect: “This will fix it.”
Tampa was all about politics; it had nothing to do with “protecting” our borders, which are, in any event, virtually watertight.

Read more:

In this article

Join the Conversation