From Rev Dr John Squires
Presbytery Minister - Wellbeing
It was 20 years ago this week, on 26 August 2001, that the "Tampa incident" occurred. That began a series of actions that has left a permanent stain of shame on the national identity of Australia.
The “Tampa incident” involved the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter which was sailing in the Indian Ocean, and a small Indonesian fishing boat, the KM Palapa 1., carrying 438 asylum seekers, which was heading to Christmas Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As that island was part of Australia, the asylum seekers were aiming to land there so that they could make new lives in Australia, eventually on the mainland.
When the engines of the fishing boat stalled in international waters between Indonesia and Australia, the MV Tampa headed for the Palapa and rescued 433 of the 438 people who were aboard the stranded boat. On board the Tampa, the Norwegian crew set up makeshift accommodation and bathrooms on the deck, out in the open air. The captain of the ship, Arne Rhinnan, planned to take the asylum seekers to Christmas Island (four hours away) rather than being returned to Indonesia (11 hours away).
Most of the refugees were Hazaras from Afghanistan. To be returned to their country would mean certain death for those fleeing the political situation of their homeland. To be allowed to land in Australia would mean life—a new life, in a new land, a new start. It would mean everything. That’s what the Norwegian captain decided to do.
It’s a wonderful story. It’s the Gospel in action. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, acted out in a different setting and a different time—our time. It’s reaching out in love and concern to people whose lives were in imminent danger. It’s embracing the stranger, the homeless, and taking them in.
Arne Rhinnan and his sailors, in taking the asylum seekers on board, feeding them, giving them water and shelter, advocating for them, did exactly what Jesus advocated in his command to “love your neighbour” (Mark 12) and his story about “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” (Matt 25).
Except that’s not the end of the story. The intransigence of the Australian Government soon became evident. Within hours, the Tampa was told it was prohibited from entering Australian waters. Those on board were taken by Australian forces and sent to Nauru, not permitted to land in Australia.
The Federal Government continued the practice of “boat turnbacks”. Boats carrying asylum seekers were called Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs. No SIEVs were to be allowed to enter Australian waters. No asylum seekers on boats were to land on Australian shores. The Government had set the course for the next two decades of rejection and stereotyping of asylum seekers as “illegal” (which they weren’t, and aren’t, under international law).
And boat turnbacks morphed into border control. And Immigration, a federal department, transformed into Border Protection. Both Labor governments (2007–2013) and conservative governments (2001–2007, continued from 2013 onwards) have refused entry to “boat arrivals”.
It’s the exact flip side of the parable of Jesus—those who fail to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, those who fail to give shelter to the homeless—these are the ones who fail to recognise Jesus in “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matt 25:45). These are the one to who Jesus declares that their fate is, “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. That’s in the story that Jesus told.
But in the story of the Palapa and the Tampa, the Norwegian sailors and the Afghani asylum seekers, a very different fate lay in store. The shameful saga of the claims about “children overboard” took hold in the public narrative. The claims were later proven to be entirely confected. But the stigma attached to the asylum seekers took hold. It exacerbated the racist denigration and discrimination that had been fostered already in Australia by Pauline Hanson in 1997–98, and which Prime Minister Howard refused to condemn or even to address.
The incident involving the Palapa and the Tampa was not a one-off, unusual occurrence. It actually taps deep into the racism in the Australian psyche that has been fostered in various ways since 1788. It is a continuing shame that stains our conscience and disfigures our society. It provides a warning, a rebuke, a challenge. Is this really who we are? who we want to be? who we should be?
Twenty years years on from the Palapa and the Tampa, and the dishonesty of “children overboard”, it is time to reconsider—to leave behind the racist discrimination and vilification that has too often been evident in Australian society. It is time we became something different.
There is a longer version of this reflection on the blog of John Squires, An Informed Faith, at https://johntsquires.com