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The Tampa issue, twelve months on

By Greg Barns and Andrew MacLeod - posted Monday, 22 July 2002

Australia generally only makes world news outlets when one of the following happens: there’s major summer bush fire, a shark mauls a swimmer on one of our endless beaches, or a serious crime occurs involving overseas tourists. But just on year ago our Nation became front page news around the globe because we showed no mercy to 300 desperate people. And 12 months on, the inhumanity continues and shows no so signs of abating.

The Nation was mesmerised when on 26 August 2001 the government ordered the Norwegian trading vessel, that had picked up a boatload of 300 desperate asylum seekers, to not enter Australian waters.

For a week after, Mr Howard milked the issue for all that it was worth and played to the fear that lies in the hearts of many Australians who are all too aware that they live on an island continent – the fear of invasion by hordes from the North. Eventually New Zealand took some of the Tampa passengers and Australia effectively ‘bribed’ small and impoverished neighbours, Nauru and Papua-New Guinea to take the remainder of the asylum seekers.


And twelve months on, the vast majority of Australians (over 75 percent according to most polls) still support the Howard government’s tough line on asylum seekers that includes compulsory mandatory detention in detention centres that are, in the main, located in the most inhospitable parts of the Nation – Woomera in the South Australian desert and Port Headland on the fiercely hot and wind swept Western Australian coast. And although Woomera is to be scaled down shortly, its replacement near the South Australian town of Port Augusta, is just as exposed to the freezing winters nights and 50 degrees plus summer sun.

But what the Tampa crisis represented for Australia was something more than a misplaced and aberrant exercise in bellicosity. Unfortunately it has enabled the fearful isolationists who want nothing more than to retreat behind imaginary borders to win out – for the moment at least.

We all recall the ‘hour upon the stage’ strutted by Pauline Hanson – mouthing xenophobic and racist platitudes. While Ms Hanson may have departed from the scene the politics of the Howard government have pleased her supporters.

Thus the Howard government knows that it has strong community support when it berates the United Nations for its criticism of our policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers – ‘these are do-gooder busy bodies who don’t know what they are talking about’ is the mantra chanted by Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and the Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. All of which is highly ironic and tragic given that it was one of Mr Downer’s predecessors – Dr Bert Evatt, who in 1945, won the support of Britain and the USA to ensure that the fledging UN had a human rights mandate as well as a security charter.

And the coup de grace in the new isolationism of Australia was the Howard government’s decision to instruct our UN Representative to vote against the UN Optional Protocol against Torture, which would have allowed UN inspectors to make spot checks on detention centres like Port Headland or Woomera. In doing so we joined with China, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and Libya! What company we are now days happy to keep!

And do not expect any change to the current hard-line stance against asylum seekers to end anytime soon. The Labor Party is willing to support the conservatives. When two of the Party’s largest branches in New South Wales and Queensland – passed resolutions at their conferences earlier this year calling for Labor to support community based processing of asylum seekers as an alternative to mandatory detention, the Party’s national Leader, Simon Crean, simply ignored them.


Meanwhile the suffering of those who are in detention continues. Only two weeks ago one of Australia’s leading trauma experts, a University of New South Wales psychologist, Zachary Steel, reported that many in the detention centres are suffering from ‘anticipatory stress disorder’. A condition characterised by depression, anxiety and stress, in which the sufferer lives in constant fear of being returned to their native country.

And of course, send them packing is exactly what the Australian government has in mind for most asylum seekers. It has offered $A 2000 to any Afghan who will return home. A pitifully low amount and even less generous than the UK Blair government’s offer of 2000 pounds.

Alan Paton, the dissident South African writer, wrote ‘Cry the Beloved Country. This is how many Australians feel about the Nation that was once at the forefront of democracy and human rights. But now so many who come to our shores since the Tampa crisis of 12 months ago would unfortunately agree with a former detainee from Port Headland who was quoted in a newspaper in Australia recently; “I never saw Australia as a humanitarian country because refugees are treated like animals."

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About the Authors

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Andrew MacLeod is Visiting Professor at King's College, London and Vice Chancellor's Distinguished Fellow at Deakin University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Greg Barns
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