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‘We will decide who comes to this country’

2001: Australian troops take control of Tampa carrying rescued asylum-seekers

Remi Jouan, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
2000 Today
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Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Why did the refugees want to go to Christmas Island? Why did the Australian Government want to stop this from happening?

2. What did Prime Minister John Howard mean when he said ‘…we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’? Do you think this view is still supported today? Explain your answer.

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the ‘Tampa affair’ is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Lifebuoy from the MV <em>Tampa</em></p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

In August 2001, the captain of the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa rescued hundreds of asylum seekers from a stranded Indonesian fishing boat in the Indian Ocean and tried to bring them to Australia. In response Australian troops boarded the Tampa to stop it from landing the asylum seekers on Australia’s Christmas Island. The ‘Tampa Crisis’ triggered Australia’s new ‘border protection’ laws and was a central issue in the 2001 federal election.

Lifebuoy from the MV Tampa

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What was the name of the ship that rescued Afghan asylum seekers on 24 August 2001?

2. Where did the asylum seekers want to be taken?

3. What world event happened less than three weeks after the ‘Tampa affair’?

What happened in international waters in August 2001?

On 24 August 2001 the Palapa, a small Indonesian fishing boat, became stranded in international waters 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island, an Australian territory. The boat was overloaded with 433 asylum seekers from Afghanistan.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority asked the container ship MV Tampa to rescue the asylum seekers. After picking them up, the ship’s captain, Arne Rinnan, began to navigate toward the Indonesian city of Merak. But some of the asylum seekers threatened to harm themselves if they weren’t taken to Christmas Island.

The Australian Government refused to let the Tampa bring any of the asylum seekers into Australian waters.

Many of the asylum seekers on the ship were in poor health. For over 48 hours, Rinnan made repeated requests to Australian authorities for help. These requests were heard and recognised, but not acted upon.

Rinnan finally decided to enter Australian waters, but was told by the Australian authorities that he was breaking Australian laws.

<p>Cartoon titled ‘UnAustralian’</p>

Fiona Katauskas

<p>Cartoon titled ‘UnAustralian’</p>

What was the Australian Government’s response?

On 29 August 2001 the Australian Government sent 45 Special Air Service (SAS) troops to board the Tampa and stop it from sailing any closer to Christmas Island. The government quickly made agreements for the asylum seekers to be sent to New Zealand and the Pacific island of Nauru.

In the years after the ‘Tampa Crisis’, the government passed new border protection laws known as the ‘Pacific Solution’. Under these laws asylum seekers had no automatic right to apply for refugee status if they arrived on any of the islands around Australia. They could also be processed offshore in places like Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Research task


Use Google maps to find out approximately where the MV Tampa picked up the Afghan refugees. How far is this area from Australia?

Google Maps

Life jacket from the MV Tampa.

The Government’s handling of the ‘Tampa Crisis’ was reported around the world. Some critics argued that it was unjust and stopped genuine refugees from finding a safe country to settle in. 

The government stated that its immigration policy was saving lives by discouraging people from sailing to Australia in unseaworthy boats. Between 2002 and 2007, a total of 23 boats arrived in Australia, compared with 43 in 2001 alone.

‘I believe it is in Australia’s national interest that we draw a line on what is increasingly becoming an uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals in this country.’

Prime Minister John Howard, 2001

What was the impact of the ‘Tampa affair’?

On 11 September 2001, less than three weeks after the ‘Tampa Crisis’ began, terrorists destroyed the ‘Twin Towers’ of the World Trade Center in New York. This attack killed 2996 people, including 11 Australians. Prime Minister Howard immediately agreed that the Australian military would help America. This led to Australia getting involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Australian Government election campaign started weeks later, and many people raised questions about border protection and national security. Prime Minister Howard stated: ‘…we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’.

For most of 2001 the Liberal–National coalition government had been behind the Labor Party opposition in the opinion polls, and few thought they could stay in government. But, partly because of Howard’s actions during the ‘Tampa affair’ and the September 11 attacks, many people saw him as a strong leader. On 10 November 2001, his Liberal–National coalition government won the election with a 3 per cent increase in votes.


Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What was the name of the ship that rescued Afghan asylum seekers on 24 August 2001?

2. Where did the asylum seekers want to be taken?

3. What world event happened less than three weeks after the ‘Tampa affair’?