By Katharine Gentry

The theme for Refugee Week in 2007 is 'The Voices of Young Refugees'. Across Australia young people are using their voices to spread positive messages about refugees.

Year 8 student Katharine Gentry won the Victorian National History Challenge for her essay The Tampa incident and how it became a turning point in Australian history.

This is her essay:

The Tampa search and rescue mission of 438 asylum seekers heading towards Australia in 2001 marks a turning point in Australia's history in three key ways.

  • Firstly, it provoked legal changes that determine how Australia responds to unauthorised boats in our territory.
  • Secondly, through extensive media coverage it shaped the public's opinions towards boat people and dramatically influenced the outcome of an election.
  • Lastly, the Tampa incident marks an important turning point in international perceptions of Australia.

After briefly outlining the Tampa's mission, these three dimensions will be examined.

On 26 August 2001, in response to a Mayday signal from a ship in international waters, the Australian Government sent a plea to nearby vessels to conduct a search and rescue mission. The Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship, responded to the call.

After a four hour journey, the Tampa discovered the Palapa; a 35 metre Indonesian fishing boat with 438 asylum seekers on board. The Palapa had been heading to Christmas Island and the passengers were planning to claim refugee status in Australia, but they had encountered a storm and the boat was falling apart.

The asylum seekers asked to be taken to Christmas Island and the master of the ship, Arne Rinnan, took them as far as he could before he was forbidden to enter Australian waters.

Canberra did not want any more asylum seekers in Australia and they held to several arguments: to protect the nation's sovereignty; that our detention centres were full; that these people might not be genuine refugees and after 11 September, that there could be terrorists among them.

The asylum seekers were kept on the hot deck of the Tampa with up to 15 people unconscious at one time, not enough toilets, on hunger strike, with skin diseases, diarrhoea, three pregnant women, one broken leg, several suffering from hypothermia and 46 children.

Rinnan waited outside the territorial waters with the health situation on board deteriorating for three days until he decided that he had to get to Christmas Island.

At this, the government sent an SAS recruitment to board the ship. On 3 September, the asylum seekers were transferred to a navy boat and taken to Nauru as part of the Pacific Solution. 131 of them ended up in New Zealand and the rest were scattered. Australia wanted as few refugees, particularly from the Tampa, as possible.

On 17 September the new Border Protection Bill was voted in. This made the Tampa incident not only an event, but a turning point in Australia's history and law. In effect, the Bill represented a shift in power away from legal systems (where judges and evidence determine asylum seekers' future) to military and government officials. It overrode previous laws, like the international convention (1951). This gave the Prime Minister the right to turn the Tampa, and many other vessels away.

As to be expected, there was opposition to the Bill. It took two appeals to parliament for the Bill to be agreed to. Human rights advocates and the United Nations also strongly opposed the Bill for humanitarian reasons.

The Tampa sparked an upsurge of media interest in asylum seeker issues and consequently established immigration policy's place as a key social question. Before the Tampa incident media coverage of boat people was enough to ignite fear, but never informative enough to present the issue clearly.

Just one week before the Tampa's mission, polls were showing Howard was going to lose the 2001 election. "I didn't actually think immigration issues could flush that away" says leader of the Opposition at that time, Kim Beazley. It turns out the Tampa mission was a crucial turning point in the election campaign. Howard used the Tampa incident to fuel anxiety.

The Border Protection Bill symbolised the Liberal's commitment to security issues. Howard argued that tough uncompromising action was needed, and that Labor's indecisiveness left Liberals the only party up to the task. The events surrounding the Tampa signify an important political turning point in Australia's history, as they influenced Liberal's 2001 election win.

Before the Tampa, Australia was well known for its humanitarian treatment of refugees. Marian Le, a prominent spokesperson for refugees, notes that Australia offered Indochinese asylum seekers fleeing the Vietnam War unquestioned two year protection visas through to permanent citizenship rights.

When John Howard's government decided to turn asylum seekers away, she was among the many people opposed to the cruelty of not allowing other human beings peaceful asylum.

The Tampa's captain, the owner of the ship and the local head of the shipping line were careful when criticising the Australian government. They said that they were merely 'surprised and disappointed' by Canberra.

The United Nations, the government of Norway, the Wilhelmson Line (owner of the MV Tampa), legal commentators, human rights advocates, a few brave politicians and some Melbourne lawyers were among the biggest opponents the Australian government had.

They were opposed to the Border Protection Bill; which included Operation Relex (the naval operation used to keep the boats away) and the Pacific Solution (sending the boat people who wouldn't turn away to detention centres on islands in the Pacific).

In conclusion, the Tampa incident represents a three-fold turning point in Australia's modern history.

  • It led to the creation of the Border Protection Bill, which was a substantial change in Australia's law and attitude to asylum seekers.
  • Next, it raised immigration policy and asylum seekers as a major social issue and influenced the 2001 election.
  • Finally, Australia's humanitarian and fair image was damaged in the international community.

If it weren't for the Tampa incident, Australia could be heading in a different direction. The Bill might not have been introduced. Asylum seekers could still be coming to Australia. People would probably still be very ignorant about asylum seekers, with little media interest in the subject. For all we know, Australia could be led by a different political party.

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