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The Tampa refugees: John Howard was right

By Alexander Deane - posted Thursday, 9 September 2004

Three years on, many still mutter darkly about John Howard’s "immoral" treatment of asylum seekers prior to the 2001 election, epitomised by the case of the 433 mostly Afghan refugees aboard the Norwegian ship Tampa, who were denied entry to Australia.

The decision was correct. So is the subsequent blanket policy of refusal.

Refugees should stop in, and present themselves to, the authorities of the first safe nation they arrive in after leaving the country they flee. Obviously, genuine ignorance of this rule on the part of a person genuinely fleeing for their lives is entirely excusable. However, as was the case with those aboard the Tampa, the subterfuge used by many asylum seekers attempting to get to their country of choice displays the fact that they know this all too well.


When individuals do not stop in the first safe nation, when they go through one or many nations to get to a nation, not for safety, but because they prefer it, then they are no longer asylum seekers: They are illegal immigrants, would-be economic migrants, to be treated like any other economic migrant that attempts to enter by subterfuge.

Unless fleeing persecution in Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, it is all-but impossible that an asylum seeker arriving at Australia is genuine. They have passed through safe nations.

In this, they have much in common with illegal immigrants that cross much of Europe to seek asylum in the United Kingdom. They come for many reasons: because they have heard idealised stories of the country; because they speak the language; because they have friends or relatives there; because there is an established network of smuggling that facilitates the journey; because (in the UK’s case, anyway) the country’s asylum laws are seen as a soft touch.

Whatever the reason, once an individual is not a genuine refugee, and instead merely an economic migrant attempting to enter illegally, the situation is entirely different, and the responsibilities that rested upon the state are radically changed. The nation is perfectly entitled to turn them away. If the nation wishes to send a message to others that it cannot be exploited by attempts to force entry by illegal means, then it must.

Unless such a position is taken, illegal immigrants will come in ever-larger numbers, and many intermediary nations will continue to refuse to accept their responsibility for refugees. In the case of the Tampa, Indonesia exploited the desires of the individuals concerned by deliberately failing to deal with the asylum seekers, knowing that the problem of having to house and provide for hundreds of refugees would end as those presenting it would leave their country if left alone.

Who are the people that come illegally, anyway?


Often (in the United Kingdom, predominantly), they are physically robust young men with resources sufficient to pay a substantial fee to smugglers for their illegal transportation. They are often those selected by their families as best equipped to take on the challenges of the perilous journey and illegal work that will hopefully follow.

Conversely, those left in the camps are the old, the young, the sick, the pregnant, the crippled, the diseased. They did what the international community asked them to do: they stayed where they were supposed to, and awaited processing.

Given that the financial contribution made by any given nation for refugees must inevitably be finite, the amount spent on those forcing their way to a country - on those that need our help least - takes funding and aid away from those in the camps - away from those who need it most. To allow this is to undermine the UN refugee program, in effect saying that those with the initiative can circumvent it and go straight to where they want to go. It is to say that the queue can be jumped.

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About the Author

Alexander Deane is a Barrister. He read English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge and took a Masters degree in International Relations as a Rotary Scholar at Griffith University. He is a World Universities Debating Champion and is the author of The Great Abdication: Why Britain’s Decline is the Fault of the Middle Class, published by Imprint Academic. A former chief of staff to David Cameron MP in the UK, he also works for the Liberal Party in Australia.

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