It is hard to believe that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Tampa crisis of August 2001 – a defining moment in Australia’s maritime and immigration history. To acknowledge the anniversary we are displaying a life jacket and lifebuoy that were on board the Norwegian cargo ship when its crew rescued 433 asylum seekers from their stricken fishing boat, Palapa 1, in the Indian Ocean.
The life jacket and lifebuoy were part of the standard safety equipment on Tampa. It is not known whether they were used by the asylum seekers. Regardless they represent the tension between international obligations for safety of life at sea (SOLAS) and Australia’s domestic policy on refugees and asylum seekers. At the time of the rescue Tampa had a crew of 27 and was not licensed to carry more than 50 people. Despite this it shifted course to help the asylum seekers, who were mainly from Afghanistan.
Under pressure from some of the desperate asylum seekers Tampa’s Captain, Arne Rinnan, headed for the offshore Australian territory of Christmas Island. Tampa was denied permission to enter Australian waters. When some passengers became unconscious Captain Rinnan issued a mayday signal and sailed toward Christmas Island. Tampa was boarded by Australian special forces who ordered the ship to turn around.
Following an intense political stand-off the asylum seekers were transferred to HMAS Manoora. They were taken to the Pacific island of Nauru as part of Australia’s Pacific Solution, and also New Zealand, where most were later granted asylum. The Pacific Solution aimed to prevent refugees from reaching Australian territory, where they could legally claim asylum, to detain them in cooperating foreign countries while their status was assessed. A small number of asylum seekers from Tampa were eventually granted refugee status and resettled in Australia.
The Tampa crisis sparked fervent political and public debate about refugees, border protection and safety of life at sea, which continues to this day. The Tampa life jacket and lifebuoy, evocative symbols of this debate, will be on display in the museum’s New Acquisitions Case until the end of September.
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration