Understanding Refugees in the wake of the ‘Tampa Crisis’ and the ‘Children Overboard’ affair.

Children Overboard Affair – photo taken by HMAS Adelaide on the 8th of October 2001.

In recent months the Australian Parliament has had several heated debates on policy and treatment of refugees and asylum seekers who arrive by boat. These talks have lead to the re-instatement of the Howard Governments ‘pacific solution’. A ‘solution’ that would see all un-authorised boat arrivals be processed offshore in Nauru. The UN and other international bodies have deemed this policy as a form of human rights abuse due to the period of time and the conditions these people will be locked up in. Whilst as a nation our projected identity is conceived as being a supportive multicultural society, the treatment of these people would suggest otherwise. So then why are the policies and actions of the government supported by members of parliament and the general public? Arguably it would be due to the way in which understandings of refugees have become somewhat confused and negative in the past 10 years. The turning point for the change in perception can be linked to the representations of the ‘Tampa crisis’ and ‘Children overboard affair’ by the government and Media. Both the media and Government used these events to justify the tough ‘deterrence’ policies in the interest of national security. Therefore encouraging the public to re-imagine ‘boat people’ as ‘illegal immigrants’ who to some extent were a threat to our national security and identity.

Pre 9/11 – were we always like this?

Historically, Australia’s Humanitarian intake was significantly larger than what it is today. After the signing of the UN declaration of Refugees, Australia received a large influx of asylum seekers mainly from Europe who were wishing to escape the aftermath of World War two with most of these arrivals being by boat. Australia again received another large influx of Refugee’s and asylum seekers by boat in the 1970’s, some 20,000 people annually. This time however the people were mainly from indo-china. In both of these circumstances the people that were arriving on our shore were painted in a positive light as the government set up education and training schemes both on shore and abroad to ensure that the large influx of Refugee’s could be utilised as an increase to the Australian labour pool. Not all Australian’s accepted this view, with many Australians holding fears about retaining work and the health risks posed by arrivals mainly from Asia. However the current understandings of ‘boat people’ as groups who are not legitimately seeking protection but are in fact trying to attack our way of life and safety was not prevalent in the minds of the public until very recently. This is marked by the introduction of mandatory detention and the increased tightening of restrictions and regulations towards refugee’s who arrived by boat from 1992.


Dehumanising and Trivialising the Refugee.

Post 9/11 Australia has seen a significant shift in not only Australia’s treatment and intake of refugee’s but our perception of them as a whole has undergone significant change. It is undeniable that the events of 9/11 resonated with the Australian public, and fears for our security and ability to protect our sovereignty and safety were brought into question. The link between boat people and ‘terrorists’ became quite clear after the ‘Tampa crisis’ and ‘Children overboard affair’, as Peter Slipper claimed, “There is a connection between illegals and terrorists”. Whilst this statement is damning enough for the legitimacy of Refugee’s, the real damage is from the Government and the media using the term ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘boat people’ to refer to asylum seekers who arrive here by boat. The use of which can be seen throughout several newspaper articles within the Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun Herald and the Telegraph, as well as in Statements given by John Howard and other Government personal in 2001. These terms and others like it not only help in stigmatising refugee’s as being somewhat criminal in the public eyes, but it also encourages an ‘other mentality’, encouraging the general public to view Refugee’s not as people, but as a collective group with no real identity.  All of these aspects contribute to an idea of illegitimacy and encourages us to see Refugee’s who arrive by boat not as people who are legitimately seeking asylum in Australia, but instead as ‘queue-jumpers’ who will do anything to live in this country. Therefore completely trivialising the complexity of their situation and marking the dramatic change in understandings of Refugee’s within the Australian context. Refugees and Asylum seekers identities have now been intertwined with issues of Sovereignty and National Security.



The re-election of Prime Minister John Howard and the Liberal party is not only proof of the successful campaign against Refugee’s in 2001 but it emulates this change of understandings of Refugee’s. This is the case as the main element for the Howard Governments campaign was their ‘tough stance’ on boat people and asylum seekers in general. Consequently validating the Government’s policies towards refugee’s and asylum seekers who arrive by boat, establishing a ‘deterrence’ mentality in the interests of national security. These understandings of refugee’s as illegitimate boat people who are trying to come into this country ‘through the backdoor’ was significantly shaped by the media and Howard Governments reporting of the ‘Tampa Crisis’ and the ‘Children Overboard Affair’, an understanding which evidently still resonates with the general public and the government today.

Further Reading:

Mares, Peter. Borderline: Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001.

Hartley, L. & A. Pedersen. “Asylum seekers: How attributions and emotion affect Australians’ views on mandatory detention of “the other.” Australian Journal of Psychology 3 (2007): pp 119-131

Macken-Horarik, M. “A Telling Symbiosis in the Discourse of Hatred: Mutimodal News Texts About The ‘Children Overboard’ Affair.” Australian Review of Applired Linguistics  2 (2003): pp 1-16

4 comments on “Understanding Refugees in the wake of the ‘Tampa Crisis’ and the ‘Children Overboard’ affair.

  1. Interesting read. The idea of subconcious attitudes versus what is fed to us by those making the choice i find interesting, but also the correlation with economic times. When Rudd won in 2007 part of it was we had 11 years of conservative, economic driven elections and people felt it was time for some social issues, things like the apology, Kyoto and treatment of refugees. People supported it at the time. Now, things haven’t been as rosy for many and they then take it out on refugees (amongst others). With politicians who pander to those wanting to treat refugees in such a way it is no wonder many lose faith in the political system. I’ll always remember Pakistan officials laughing at us when we complained about 20,000 refugees. They took about 4 million the same year!

  2. narmadanatkunaratnam says:

    This topic that you have chosen is very interesting and is very much a relevant topic for today’s audience. I particularly liked the way you highlighted the changing attitudes towards refugees through using two controversial events in Australian history. I believe a lot of your thoughts on the way refugees are treated are very much true and through writing this piece you are making one step forward in educating people and instigating change.

  3. pmtilley says:

    The idea of refugees and asylum seekers really causes angst in the Australian community. Reassesment of the issue, such as the history from this blog is regularly needed to bring thinking and understanding into the 21st century. Australians like to think part of our national identity is to be a caring and humanitarian nation but we get spooked almost every time a new set of historical circumstances brings a new and different group to our shores. I agree with Andrew that shifts in economic conditions can often trigger the response of turning the new arrivals into the dangerous ‘other’ very quickly rather than those needing refuge, which means turning us back into a besieged ‘fortress’ once again. Predictably this is provoked by the agendas of politicians, and of the media seeking to create sensational headlines, saying they threaten our security and the Australian way of life. Right now Tony Abbott sacrifices the precarious lives at the centre of the the current asylum seeker management problem, for political advantage at almost every opportunity. If it gets said enough Australians believe we have something to fear.

    It’s true we have taken on large groups of refugees in the past and know that we managed this and can see in hindsight that it benfited our society. Although, post WW2 European migration were hardly the ‘boat people’ we are talking about today as they were brought by ‘ships’ mostly paid for by the Australian government: and likewise many Vietnam refugees were brought in large numbers by plane from refugee camps in Asia (I know because I regularly worked on airplanes that brought them here). The point I want to make is that bringing in and controlling the disbursal of large numbers of those seeking refuge brought benefits for Australia, so if we do this again maybe we can start to tackle the current problem of so many desperate people coming on leaky boats. Maybe we can also then preserve our reputation and identity as a humanitarian society.

  4. First I’d like to say that this was a really well written piece. I also agree that that one cannot underestimate the importance of political leadership. In shaping national opinion, regarding immigration and refugees, political leadership has always been fundamentally important. Polls generally tell us that, on refugee or immigration issues, most people support the public view of their favorite party. Polls also indicate that when the views of the party change, so do the opinions of the party supporters.

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