Australia: Tampa 10 years on, refugees considered worse than criminals

28 August 2011

The Australian government jumped upon the arrival of the Tampa to manipulate anti-refugee sentiment, Sydney, Australia.

Bangkok, 28 August 2011 – The key consequence of the Tampa crisis was a “fundamental shift” in the way refugees were regarded in Australian society, said Jesuit Refugee Service Australia Director, Aloysious Mowe SJ.

Friday 26 August marked the tenth anniversary of the rescue by the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa of 433 asylum seekers from a sinking vessel in the Indian Ocean and the refusal of the former liberal party government to allow them entry into Australia.

The Australian government refused to allow the distressed vessel, carrying Afghani asylum seekers, to enter national waters. When the Tampa did enter national waters, the then prime minister, John Howard ordered the ship be boarded by Australian Special Forces. This brought censure from the Norwegian government which accused the Australian government of failing to meet its international obligations.

Prior to the Tampa incident, refugees had been seen as part of the general migrant population coming to Australia, Fr Aloysious said.

“Most of the time, certainly before Malcolm Fraser’s government opened Australia’s borders to the Vietnamese boat people, refugees were admitted not out of any humanitarian instinct that they were in need of protection, but rather because they added value to Australia, in other words the migration gain”, he added.

“Refugees were not stigmatised: they were regarded as part of the larger cohort of migrants who would make a contribution to Australian life. The problem with this policy, however, was that often people with the greatest protection needs, those with mental or physical disabilities, for example, were not taken in by the government because their presence was not seen as contributing to the good of Australia”, the Jesuit explained.

Manipulating public fears

According to Fr Aloysious, former Prime Minister Howard manipulated public fears first  planted in the electorate’s minds and gave those fears a legitimacy they did not merit.

“Tampa allowed the Howard government, and subsequent governments, to treat asylum seekers as a national security issue that affected Australia’s sovereignty rather than an issue regarding Australia’s obligation to extend protection to people who are genuinely in need of such protection and who arrive in its territory”, he added.

“His infamous mantra, stating it was Australia’s sovereign right to decide who came into the country and under what circumstances, resulted in refugees being denied their human right to asylum,” continued Fr Aloysious.

The last 10 years, he continued, “have seen Australia lurching even further away from a rational and moral approach” to refugees. Those who seek asylum are now detained worse than criminals.”

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