Tampa = Disgrace 

One Man's Web > Politics and Ethics > Australia and the Refugees > Tampa = Disgrace

On December 2 2001 The Herald Sun reported the knighting of the captain of the Norwegian freighter Tampa.  The quote below from this article sums up the startlingly different attitudes of Norway and Australia, and shows how far we have come in our loss of compassion.

Captain Arne Rinnan was honoured for rescuing 438 boat people off the coast of Australia in August. The Norwegian captain has become a hero in Norway.

"It was for his seamanship in connection with him saving 438 people in distress at sea who would have died without him," a Norwegian government spokesman said.

"He has become a hero because of the way he handled the situation. It was highly appreciated by the Norwegian people."

The Order of St Olaf was presented to Captain Rinnan by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen last week on behalf of Norway's King Harald.

Captain Rinnan rescued the asylum seekers and then tried to land them at Christmas Island.

But the Federal Government sent Special Air Service troops to board the ship to stop the asylum seekers landing on Australian soil.  http://www.heraldsun.news.com.au/printpage/0,5481,3356180,00.html as at 19/1/2002

Australia's attitude in this event stank from the beginning.  Our coast watch reported the ship carrying refugees was in distress and Australia asked for nearby ships to help rescue people.  Yet, as reported by Juan-Carlo Tomas in the Sydney Morning Herald (link live at 19/1/2002) the alert document was suddenly declared secret..

The telefax, sent by the Canberra-based Rescue Coordination Centre has been 
classified in the interests of national security, said centre spokesman Ben 

"It's in the hands of the National Security Committee," he said. "I imagine 
that's happened because of the events of the past few days."

The telefax - which on Tuesday was described by a spokesman for Immigration 
Minister Philip Ruddock as a public document - was broadcast to ships around 
Christmas Island on Sunday at around 12.40pm following a request from 
Indonesian search and rescue authorities, he said.

What on earth were we trying to hide in this game of politics to avoid our human responsibilities?  Was it simply the recognition that what we were doing was simply morally wrong?  Wee we trying to cover up the fact that these people were pawns in the Australian election build up? Also on August 30 Mark Forbes in The Age (link live at 19/1/2001, appears to be dead July 2003) reported Jean Pierre Fonteyne  (from Australian National University's Centre for International and Public Law) as saying the Federal Government's legal arguments against the asylum seekers and the Tampa were "extremely weak and questionable."

 Fonteyne, an expert in the law of the sea and international refugee conventions,  John Howard's claim that Norway was 
responsible for the ship was wrong. He said the situation in international law was not as clear-cut as  Mr Howard claimed. Indonesia was not obliged to accept those found in its international search and rescue zone.  

"The 1979 International Search and Rescue Convention doesn't say anything at all about who has responsibility for persons rescued..... The flag state (of the rescuing ship) doesn't have responsibility to provide asylum....The least responsible state is Norway. Otherwise it would be a major disincentive to rescues at sea."

Fonteyne indicated international law did not have precise principles to identify which nation 
was responsible in a situation such as the Tampa's. 

"The widest practice is: the captain is entitled to disembark those rescued at the next convenient port of call. This captain decided to set sail for Christmas Island, so it can be argued we have the primary responsibility to let them disembark..... The island was only two hours' sailing from the rescue site, and Indonesia "

Norway Today's interview with Arn Rinnan is revealing. (Link live at 19/1/2002.)  On August 25 Australian Authorities requested Tampa's assistance.  

They sent a plane to direct us to the sinking boat. When we arrived it was obvious to us that it was coming apart. Several of the refugees were obviously in a bad state and collapsed when they came on deck to us. 10 to 12 of them were unconscious, several had dysenteria and a pregnant woman suffered abdominal pains"

 First we were told to bring them to Christmas Island, then they changed their minds and said that the refugees were not allowed to disembark at any account. I got mad.

Rinnan has been a sailor since 1958, and a captain for 23 years.

I have seen most of what there is to see in this profession, but what I experienced on this trip is the worst. When we asked for food and medicine for the refugees, the Australians sent commando troops onboard. This created a very high tension among the refugees. After an hour of checking the refugees, the troops agreed to give medical assistance to some of them.... - The soldiers obviously didn't like their mission.

Was it the case that the decent Australian search and rescue people, and the soldiers, simply did their jobs, but the government interfered for political gain?  It certainly looked that way to the rest of the world, according to Hamish Fitzsimmons and John Schauble from the Sydney Morning Herald.  (Link live at 19/1/2002) They reported on August 30 that while the predictable talk back radio paranoia and xenophobia was supporting Howard the overseas views were "not so kind." 

"Foreign media reports have been highly critical of the Government's actions, even suggesting a possible return to the White Australia policy. "

They report Reuters as saying

Australia's reputation as a fortress against the Asian hordes has been reclaimed this week with the rejection of a teeming migrant ship and [a] hardening stand against immigration.

Reports from countries with a higher level of illegal immigration than Australia's, particularly Germany and Britain, have been scathing. Britain's  Daily Telegraph said people-smugglers receive lenient treatment while genuine refugees may face time in "concentration camps". "The refugees themselves face a double dose of suffering; first risking their lives in  leaky, rusting boats on the promise of a job and a new life, only to find themselves locked up in austere outback camps. 

The Guardian said sending in the troops was about John Howard's political future.  In researching this article I found comparisons on the BBC  (link live at 19/1/2001) website  with Margaret Thatcher sending troops to the Falklands to ensure her own re-election.

The Federal Government's behaviour over the Tampa and it's use of refugees as an election lever is disgraceful.  This disgrace is shared by the Opposition Labour Party who supported them. And by Australia, who re-elected the Howard Government.  Perhaps the final word on our ethical BO belongs to The Rocket, a satirical Australia Website.  Read this article in full there, but I give you some preview of the tone below:

International support for the Australian Government response to the asylum seekers stranded aboard MS Tampa off Christmas Island has begun to flow in.

Zimbabwe President, Robert Mugabe was the first to offer John Howard support.

"I cannot stress too highly my delight at the firm action you have taken in relation to this invasion. Having tried to cope with our own problem with illegal white squatters on big white farms, I can honestly say, the only way to protect your sovereignty is through forced removal," said Mr Mugabe in a statement delivered to John Howard by the Zimbabwe High Commissioner.

former UK Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher also offered support in a communiqué delivered to John Howard.

"Someone should have had the courage to do this long ago. It is time to take off the velvet gloves and show them the iron fist of democracy at work. The Commonwealth cannot stand by and be held hostage by a bunch of heathen land grabbers," she said in a statement.

Pauline Hanson is so thrilled with the Governments response to the latest boat load of illegal immigrants she is reportedly thinking of changing One Nation's tactics and giving preferences to the Howard Government.

"I said all along most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians," she repeated. "Let them go back to their own culture, their idolatrous religion and their pathetic homes. They will only form ghettos and do not assimilate."

Put simply, we stink.


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