During the year 2001 Australia had an increasing problem of people arriving on boats to apply for asylum in Australia. Many of these came from Indonesia to Christmas Island, an Australian possession in the Indian Ocean, off the north-west coast of Australia and south of Indonesia. Hundreds of people arrived on tightly packed, leaky boats.
On August 26, 2001, a 20 metre wooden fishing boat with 460 mainly Afghan asylum seekers became stranded about 75 nautical miles north of Christmas Island. The MS Tampa responded to the distress call, and rescued the asylum seekers. (Another account is that the distress call was picked up by the Australian search and rescue authorities, which then ordered the Tampa to perform the rescue). The ship was due to travel on to Singapore, and originally the captain (Arne Rinnan) planned to take the asylum seekers to Indonesia. However, when several of the asylum seekers told the captain they would jump overboard unless they were taken to Australia, the captain set sail for Christmas Island instead.
The ship approached the boundary of Australia's territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the island) and requested the Australian government's permission to unload the asylum seekers at Christmas Island. The Australian government however refused permission for the ship to enter Australia's territorial waters, arguing that Christmas Island did not have facilities for the ship to dock, and that the rescue occurred in part of the high seas for which Indonesia had search and rescue responsibilties, and that hence they should go to Indonesia instead.
Captain Rinnan pleaded for permission for the ship to dock at Christmas Island. He reported that several of the asylum seekers were unconscious, and others were suffering from dysentry, claims which were later disputed. According to later Australian government claims, the refugees were in relatively good health. However a few were quite ill by the time they arrived in New Zealand, so this matter is probably still unclear. The Captain said that the ship could not sail to Indonesia, because it was unseaworthy -- the ship was not designed for 438 people, only its 27 crew; and there were no lifeboats or other safety equipment available for the asylum seekers in the case of an emergency. He was also concerned that if the ship did try to sail to Indonesia the asylum seekers could try jumping overboard or rioting and harm the crew.
The Australian government promised the provision of medical assistance and food, but still refused permission for the ship to enter Australian territorial waters. The Australian government sent military personnel to Christmas Island, ostensibly to be ready to provide this assistance to the ship.
On August 29 Captain Rinnan, having lost patience with the Australian authorities, and increasingly concerned for the safety of the asylum seekers and the ships' crew, declared a state of emergency and proceeded to enter Australian territorial waters, against Australian government orders not to. The Australian government claimed this was illegal, but under normal law of the sea, and Australian law at the time, it probably wasn't unless it can be established that he was falsely claiming an emergency. As of October 2001, this has not been established.
The Australian government then responded by dispatching Australian troops (35 SAS commandos) to board the ship and prevent it from approaching any further to Christmas Island. The Australian government was seeking to stop any of the asylum seekers from applying for asylum, which they could legally do as soon as they stepped foot on Australian territory. The soldiers boarded the ship and Captain Rinnan then anchored it approximately four nautical miles off Christmas Island. Shortly afterwards the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, reported the boarding of the ship to the Australian Parliament.
The Australian troops instructed Captain Rinnan to move the ship back into international waters; he refused, claiming the ship was unsafe to sail until the asylum seekers had been offloaded. The shipowners said they agreed with his decision, and the Norwegian government warned the Australian government not to seek to force the ship to return to international waters against the captain's will.
The Australian government tried to convince Indonesia to accept the asylum seekers; Indonesia refused. Norway refused to accept them either, and reported Australia to the United Nations, the United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees and the International Maritime Organisation for alleged failure to obey its duties under international law, though it did not ask for the assistance of these organizations.
Border Protection Bill 2001
Late on the night of August 29, the Prime Minister introduced an emergency bill entitled the "Border Protection Bill 2001". This Bill, provides the government with the power to remove any ship in the territorial waters of Australia (s. 4), to use reasonable force to do so (s. 5), to provide that any person who was on the ship may be forcibly returned to the ship (s. 6), that no civil or criminal proceedings may be taken against the Australian government or any of its officer for removing the ship or returning people to it (s. 7), that no court proceedings are available to prevent the ship from being removed and from people being returned to it (s. 8), and that no asylum applications may be made by people on board the ship (s. 9). The bill provides for it to enter into force on at 9 am. Australian Eastern Standard Time, 29 August 2001 (s. 2); thus the bill is retroactive; it also provides that any action taken prior to the legislation being passed to remove any ship and return people to it are legal.
The Opposition (ALP) announced they would not support the bill; nor would the Greens, Democrats or Senator Harridine. The bill quickly passed the house, but was rejected by the Senate at 2:05 am ACT time on August 30, after which the Senate adjourned. The Government attacked the Opposition for refusing to pass the legislation, but indicated it would not reintroduce it at this stage.
The immigrants from the Tampa were loaded onto an Australian Navy vessel. Most were transported to the small island country of Nauru and the rest to New Zealand, where they will be processed. When they arrived on Nauru, many of the refugees refused to leave the boat, unhappy that, whilst they have found a refuge, it is not in Australia. Many of the immigrants are thought to have spent thousands of dollars to be able to come to Australia.