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Tampa, 20 years on

It’s been 20 years since the Tampa Affair, an event (and aftermath) that defined Australia’s stance on asylum seekers. Let’s circle back.

August 24, 2001 

The situation began on August 24, 2001, when a small Indonesian fishing boat carrying 433, mainly Hazara, asylum seekers from Afghanistan was stranded in international waters, about 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island. Under the direction of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, a Norwegian container ship, the MV Tampa, was sent to rescue and assist the asylum seekers. However, Australia did not allow the asylum seekers to land in Australia.

Over the 48 hours that followed, many of the asylum seekers’ health deteriorated, and eventually, the captain of the Tampa vessel, Arne Rinnan, decided to enter the ship over the Australian maritime boundary on 29 August, despite not having permission to do so. 

Border Protection Bill 2001 

In response, the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, introduced an emergency bill called the Border Protection Bill 2001. The bill would have given the power to the Federal Government to remove any foreign ship in Australian territorial waters. The bill passed the House of Representatives, but was blocked by the Senate, and after that, the bill was not re-introduced. 

Pacific Solution 

After the incident, a series of laws, which are collectively known as the ‘Pacific Solution’, were passed in relation to Australia’s handling of asylum seekers. The new laws meant asylum seekers were processed offshore (think offshore islands like Christmas Island). The laws also meant that asylum seekers had no automatic right to apply for refugee status if they arrived on these islands. 

The political impact and aftermath 

The decision made by Howard during this time saw a significant increase in his popularity going into the 2001 election.  

Many aspects of the framework from the Pacific Solution remain in existence today, with offshore detention still fundamental to the Government’s border policies.

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