Border Control and the Tampa Incident

Photo: Mike Bowers, Sydney Morning Herald

The circulation of issues such as immigration, detention, and asylum seekers are likely to create widespread debate in many social and political contexts. Like Canada and the United States, Australia is a true immigrant nation. If individuals are not Aboriginals or Torres Strait Islanders, they are descendants of immigrants themselves.

Despite this fact, Australia has had an historical obsession with keeping out ‘alien’ entities.

Ignorance and preconceived ideas about ‘foreigners’ have ingrained themselves in national rhetoric. These prejudices have seen the most harsh political strategies implemented by past and present governments, that focus largely on the deterrence of those in dire need of resettlement. It is therefore ironic that Australia prides itself on being a multicultural nation when fears about the decay of the Eurocentric Australian way of life become the drivers behind immigration policy.

The Tampa Incident

Asylum seekers are forced to leave their country of origin and, unlike refugees, do not have access to the United Nations processing systems. In Australia it is illegal for the government to refuse access to an asylum seeker as it is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention. The controversial nature of the Tampa incident is based on this premise. On the 26th August 2001, a Norwegian cargo ship named MV Tampa rescued over four hundred and thirty people from a sinking fishing vessel, Palapa 1, off the coast of Christmas Island. The Tampa was bringing the biggest load of asylum seekers that had ever set out for Christmas Island.  The physical and mental health of those on board were deteriorating. Appeals for assistance were made repeatedly by the captain to the Australian Coalition government. However, while political commentators and lawyers were deliberating a plan of action, the asylum seekers were left on board the cargo ship for over a week.


With an upcoming election, the Tampa could not have arrived at a worse time for John Howard and his coalition. Surprisingly, however, the incident was manipulated in a way that benefited his political aspirations.  The influential role of media coverage for a national identity galvanised public support in his favour. A homogeneous state with its peoples sharing  a common history, culture and identity became part of the political rhetoric. The asylum seekers on board the Tampa were not part of this collective and were ultimately portrayed as threatening the status quo. According to Howard and Phillip Ruddock, immigration minister at the time, it was Australia’s right as a sovereign nation to determine who came into the country and under what circumstances.

The globalised problem of asylum seekers and refugees, saw a shift in attitudes. The politics of the Tampa incident, which coincided with the 9/11 attacks, enabled the Howard government to justify its inhumane actions towards those on board. National self interests were prioritised in the name of sovereignty, security and, identity. The Howard Government went on to win another election in 2001 and governed for another four years, in which the ‘Pacific Solution’, a new processing strategy for asylum seekers, was stridently implemented.


The ‘Pacific Solution’ policy was first implemented as a way of bringing the Tampa incident to an end. The legislation denied refugees who reached outlying parts of Australia the right to seek asylum. It has been argued that the key components of the policy did not comply with international refugee standards. The Australian government made an agreement with New Zealand to take minors, families, and women. The rest were taken to Nauru where they experienced harsh conditions. Many of these asylum seekers were sent back to Afghanistan, where they have either died or been persecuted. It was only in 2007, with the succession of the Rudd government, that Nauru was closed and the ‘Pacific Solution’ eradicated.


Australia’s detention centres have been linked to racial policies of the past. The country’s system of detention for asylum seekers is notoriously among the most rigid in the democratic world. Individuals are treated like criminals, suffer from mental health problems, and can be placed in solitary confinement. The human rights of the asylum seekers and refugees has become of great concern with the recent failure of a new policy, the ‘Malaysia Solution’. After a landmark high court ruling, the only option for Australia now is on-shore processing.

What Now?

Admittedly there is no simple solution for the globalised problem of misplaced people. Political and social tensions are arising worldwide. However, I must stress that there are alternatives to Australia’s dehumanising detention centres. The Tampa asylum seekers, that were taken in by the New Zealand government, have thrived within the community. They were not placed behind bars, instead they were given a chance to use their skills to benefit society.  The harsh conditions of the “Pacific Solution” were an outright abuse of human rights and broke international refugee laws. The Tampa incident, along with the other extreme events of 2001, changed the social, political, and economic nature of Australian life. Current federal policy is again avoiding the issue of human rights and implementing ‘solutions’ which are trying to be politically beneficial.


One comment on “Border Control and the Tampa Incident

  1. rhiannonmorsillo says:

    Hey Niki,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. You have enhanced my understanding of the progression in recent policy and attitudes toward migration over time with the link from the Tampa Incident to the Pacific Solution to the current Malaysia Solution. What struck me while reading this is the fact that these immigrants are real people who are experiencing a horrific ordeal in escaping their countries of origin and taking a chance and being hopeful about starting a new life in a new country and yet it gets caught up in political games which effect it one way or another. It is sad that the individuals on board the Tampa became a tool for Howard’s campaign which had very real emotional, physical and psychological effects on them and effected their overall outcome. I think immigration policy is something that shouldn’t be allowed to be played with by the government of the day and should go through longer processes of thought, debate and policy change rather than the ideas of the current government. At the end of the day, these people are, as you said, can be very useful and productive citizens if they are just given a chance and embraced wholly by ‘multicultural’ Australia.

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