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Can boat people be turned back?

By Everald Compton - posted Tuesday, 9 July 2013

In August 2001, MV Tampa, a freighter owned in Norway, was on the high seas south of Indonesia when it picked up a May Day call from Palapa 1, an overloaded people smuggling boat with 438 souls on board. It was reported to be sinking not far from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

Observing the long-time law of the sea that he believed no-one should ever violate, Arne Rinnan, captain of the Tampa, went immediately to their aid, taking them on board his boat and sitting them on the open deck. He sailed to Christmas Inland, but was stopped from disembarking his human cargo by the Australian Navy.

There was a stand-off for several days. Rinnan was humiliated aggressively and treated as a criminal.


After the Border Protection Bill was rushed through Parliament and a challenge to it was dismissed by the High Court, we eventually took the refugees from the Tampa and flew them to Nauru, from where most of them were eventually admitted to either Australia or New Zealand.

It was one of the most shameful weeks of our history, and it achieved absolutely nothing.

I grew up in the era of the White Australia Policy, with my family and school teachers instructing me fervently how important it was to keep Australia pure, and protect my father's job from being taken by cheap Asian labour. I took it to be an article of faith whereby I should live.

This conviction gradually weakened as I began to travel the world and make many friends and business associates among people who were not white and who were more intelligent than me. I also spent a lot of time with Indigenous Australians and came to understand their grief at losing the land they had inhabited for 50,000 years.

When the Tampa incident occurred, I initially approved of it, just like most Australians, as I felt we had to protect our borders. I quickly changed my position as I came to the conviction that what we had done was wrong, legally and morally.

Of course, to believe that something was not right, but find a solution that was sensible, humane and justifiable was another matter. This commenced a long journey of my soul.


I started with the international treaties that Australia had signed, and that most nations were observing. The prime element of them is that if a person is fleeing from persecution in any nation and crosses a border into another nation, that action is legal and they must be accepted as refugees, unless they are found to be convicted criminals.

Either we observe this or we formally repudiate those treaties. We have done neither, despite that fact that there are more than 20 million refugees officially recognised as such by the United Nations. Some nations like Jordan have more than two million within their borders, and look after them better than we do with our much smaller numbers.

Then, my abhorrence of wasting money took hold of me. The offshore processing nonsense that we carry out, and which no other nation does, is a colossal waste of public money. The cheapest and most efficient way to handle refugees will be to process everyone onshore here in Australia at a refugee community established in the Northern Territory. It will also have a touch of humanity about it, as Nauru and Manus are hell holes that reduce people to the status of animals.

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This article was first published on Everald@Large.

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About the Author

Everald Compton is Chairman of The Longevity Forum, a not for profit entity which is implementing The Blueprint for an Ageing Australia. He was a Founding Director of National Seniors Australia and served as its Chairman for 25 years. Subsequently , he was Chairman for three years of the Federal Government's Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing.

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