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Tampa to Today


Cite as: December 2009 83(12) LIJ, p.24

The federal government’s stance on Sri Lankan asylum seekers has prompted claims the ALP tried to stop the Tampa case.

Melbourne lawyer Eric Vadarlis, who rose to prominence after advocating for the MV Tampa refugees in 2001, has claimed the ALP asked him to drop the case “because it was hurting them in the polls”.

In late August 2001, the Howard government refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 438 asylum seekers rescued in international waters, to enter Australian territory to unload them.

The Tampa crew declared a state of emergency and entered Australian territory anyway, and Mr Howard ordered it be boarded by the Special Forces.

The hard-line stance and ensuing controversy divided the nation, wedged the ALP and saw a resurgent Howard government eat into Labor’s massive lead in the polls.

Shortly after taking the case, Mr Vadarlis said he approached a senior ALP staffer for political assistance and “then he asked me if I thought I was going to win. I said yes and he said the ‘highest echelons’ have asked that I drop the case”.

“They asked me to drop it because it was hurting them in the polls. There had been a swing back to the Liberals who were taking a public stand against refugees entering Australia,” he said.

“The ALP were seeing that the unloseable election [held 10 November 2001] was about to be lost.”

Eight years later, on 17 November 2009, the Australian Customs ship the Oceanic Viking rescued 78 Sri Lankan Tamils from their stricken vessel.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd created controversy by refusing to send those refugees and another boat heading for Australia but captured in Indonesian waters to Christmas Island, an Australian territory, for processing.

Instead he attempted to persuade Indonesia (and at the time of writing was still in negotiations) to take the refugees by offering a combination of intelligence information, satellite imagery and security training.

However, human rights lawyers believe Australia has clear legal and moral obligations to the refugees which are not being met.

Human Rights Legal Resource Centre spokesperson Ben Schokman said as Australia was a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugees Convention and a range of other human rights treaties, it had certain obligations to asylum seekers.

“Unfortunately, the way it is playing out Australia doesn’t strictly stick to the obligations. They are saying that if we ensure people don’t enter our waters we don’t technically have to grant asylum to them,” he said.

Mr Vadarlis said Mr Rudd was “doing what John Howard did”.

“The spin is beyond belief, but it is what we want to hear. I think they are private polling and people are steadfastly against people coming into the country,” Mr Vadarlis said.

“Each successive government has found it is easier to lock [refugees] up than deal with it, but they should take a leading position and say we have obligations under the Convention.”

Leading international asylum seeker and refugee law expert James Hathaway said Mr Rudd “does owe us all an abject apology for convincing Indonesia, who are not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, to violate international norms”.

“Mr Rudd has conscripted the Indonesians to do our ‘dirty work’ just as the Howard government dumped refugees in Nauru, a place where refugee law did not apply,]

“Mr Rudd has decided that persons exercising their international legal right to seek protection should be forcibly held in Indonesia.”

Liberty Victoria president Michael Pearce SC said the current response was “more humane than the previous government”, but believes the asylum seekers should have initially been sent to Christmas Island.

He was also critical of the Opposition’s claims not to have a policy on the issue.

LIV president Danny Barlow said “yet again the issue has been politicised and some of the media treatment has been outrageous”.

The agenda-setting and sometimes hysterical reporting has seen wildly different versions of the same event on the same day.

One newspaper said “those on board attempted to blackmail the government with a snap hunger strike”, while its rival said “the asylum seekers staging a hunger strike remained defiant, insisting they would not leave their boat or even consume liquids, despite the blazing heat”.

Veteran of the Howard years asylum seeker battles, Julian Burnside QC, told The Age that he found it “really regrettable that Rudd feels the need to appear to take a tough line” on boat arrivals.

He believes Australia has the capacity to deal with the small number of refugees who present to its shores.

The ALP was contacted for comment regarding Mr Vadarlis’ Tampa claims but at the time of publication had not responded.

Jason Gregory


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