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Twenty Years After the Tampa Affair, Australia’s Left Must Keep Standing Up for Refugees

In 2001, conservative prime minister John Howard demonized 433 refugees who had been rescued at sea. It inaugurated an era of racist, abusive policies toward asylum seekers in Australia — and a movement that fights in solidarity with refugees.

Australian SAS troops head out in an inflatable boat to the MV Tampa, laden with asylum seekers, in August 2001. PM John Howard's demonization of the refugees set the stage for decades of anti-immigrant policy. (Mike Bowers / Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, in response to a call from the Australian government, the Norwegian freight ship MV Tampa diverted course to rescue passengers on a boat sinking in the Indian Ocean. It saved 433 people from drowning, mostly Hazaras from Afghanistan trying to reach Australia to seek asylum.

Liberal then–prime minister John Howard’s response is now infamous. He cynically transformed the rescue into a political crisis and ushered in a brutal new era of anti-refugee politics in Australia. The result was an immigration system that has condemned thousands of refugees to mandatory offshore and indefinite detention. This system of state-sponsored torture has caused severe mental and physical harm and has led to the deaths (including murders) of some refugees.

Governments and defenders of human rights around the world have condemned Australia’s treatment of refugees, as have millions of Australians. Despite this, Howard’s anti-refugee stance continues to shape Australian politics and is now being copied by right-wing governments around the world. Twenty years after Tampa, the Left has an ongoing responsibility to understand the racist underpinnings of Australia’s immigration detention system — and to fight for refugees’ rights.

A History of Racism

Australia’s draconian immigration policies did not begin with Tampa. Rather, they are a reversion to type. They cannot be divorced from Australia’s political and historical context.

As a settler-colonial state, Australia was founded on the dispossession and genocide of indigenous people. British colonists justified invasion under the legal fiction of terra nullius, which claimed that Australia was a land without people. So began the trope of Australia as a threatened white outpost off the shores of a hostile Asian continent.

Australia’s colonists were determined to control migration in order to preserve a white majority and exploit the land and resources they had stolen. To support this effort, the Immigration Restriction Act — also known as the White Australia policy — was one of the first laws passed by Parliament following Australia’s federation as a commonwealth in 1901.

The White Australia policy shaped twentieth-century Australian politics, on both the Right and Left. In the 1928 federal election, for example, Labor leader Ben Chifley complained that “dagoes and aliens” were “taking work which rightly belongs to all Australians.”

While Gough Whitlam’s Labor government formally rescinded the White Australia policy in 1973, racism has remained central to Australian politics in the decades since. Although subsequent Labor and Liberal governments adopted multiculturalism as official policy from the 1970s onward, Australia’s migration system has remained highly controlled and selective.

Paul Keating’s Labor government first introduced mandatory detention for people arriving by boat to seek asylum in 1992. In the following years, immigration authorities imprisoned refugees in detention centers across the country, including near the desert town of Woomera in South Australia. This served as the basis for an intensification of anti-refugee sentiment in the late 1990s.

Pauline Hanson and her anti-immigration One Nation party seized on this racism, winning more than 20 percent of the vote in the 1998 Queensland election. For John Howard’s Liberal-National Coalition, Hanson represented a serious electoral threat — and an opportunity.

The Tampa Crisis

On August 26, 2001, the MV Tampa entered Australian waters. With his party trailing in the polls, John Howard chose political self-interest over humanity.

Instead of aiding the MV Tampa, Howard presented the refugees abroad as a threat to the nation. Having denied the MV Tampa permission to dock at Christmas Island, Howard ordered the Special Air Service to board and commandeer the ship.

Assisted by right-wing media outlets, Howard effectively put the country on a war footing against refugees. He began a dehumanizing campaign presenting them as “illegals” and “queue jumpers.” His government introduced legislation to excise parts of Australia from the migration zone and established the “Pacific Solution.” Under this policy, anyone who claimed asylum after arriving in Australia by boat would be sent to remote detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

As Labor folded, Australian Greens’ then–leader Bob Brown led the political resistance to Howard’s Tampa response. As a result of this stand, support for the Greens grew significantly.

In October 2001, in the lead-up to a federal election, ministers in the Howard government intensified the demonization of refugees, claiming they had thrown their children overboard in order to force Australia to rescue them. This never happened, as a Senate committee report later established.

Howard also exploited the fearful atmosphere created by the September 11 attacks in the United States by conflating refugees with the threat of terrorism. In a November election speech, Howard infamously declared, “We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Just eight days after his speech, Howard’s Liberal-National Coalition won the 2001 federal election. In so doing, Howard wrote a playbook that has since dictated both major parties’ approaches to refugees.

From Bad to Worse

Howard’s approach to refugee policy disregarded the human rights of refugees and legislated away Australia’s obligations under international law. It gave military and paramilitary border forces responsibility for intercepting and detaining refugees and established remote island camps in which they were imprisoned.

The hard-line approach continued during the Howard government’s final six years of power. When moderate Liberal MPs disagreed with aspects of Howard’s policy, other MPs labeled them “political terrorists.”

Labor’s Kevin Rudd won office in 2007, having promised to dismantle the Pacific Solution. But under pressure from the Murdoch press and the Liberal opposition, who were determined to stoke fears about Muslim immigration, Labor capitulated.

Having failed to conclude a people-swap deal with Malaysia — later found to be unlawful by Australia’s High Court — Labor reopened detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru. Under Rudd’s 2013 policy settings, Australia’s policies toward refugees went further than even Howard had dared to go.

Eventually, more than half of the 433 saved by the MV Tampa resettled in New Zealand or Australia. However, in his 2013 bid for reelection, Kevin Rudd sought to outflank the Liberals on the right, declaring that anyone arriving by boat would never be settled in Australia. It was the effective start of indefinite offshore detention.

Operation Sovereign Borders

Not only did Labor’s resumption of offshore detention lead to the immiseration of thousands of people, but it also gave the Australian right license to descend to drastic new lows.

After regaining power in 2013, Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition government introduced “Operation Sovereign Borders.” Under the cloak of military secrecy, and in clear breach of international law, Abbott ordered the Australian navy to force boats carrying people seeking asylum to turn back.

At the same time, authorities deliberately worsened conditions on Nauru and Manus Island. Guards beat and killed detainees. Women and children were sexually assaulted. At one point, Papua New Guinea military forces opened fire on refugees held on Manus Island. Driven to desperation, detainees self-immolated and stitched their mouths closed. Many children in indefinite detention developed resignation syndrome, a psychological condition causing them to completely withdraw from the outside world.

Despite the bipartisan rhetoric about “saving lives at sea,” these abuses were the logical consequence of Australia’s policy of deterrence. By making detention intolerably cruel, the Australian government wanted to make it clear that seeking asylum in Australia was a worse alternative than remaining where they were. The policy was designed to coerce people in detention to return to the dangers they had fled.

The cruelty of Australia’s indefinite offshore detention system is not a bug — it’s a feature.

Refugees and Their Supporters Resist

In the face of this misery and racism, refugees and their supporters have resisted. From the beginning of Howard’s Pacific Solution, there have been innumerable protests attended by hundreds of thousands of Australians standing in solidarity with refugees.

Despite being subject to imprisonment and dehumanization, the people targeted by Australia’s offshore detention system have also fought back. In 2017, 650 refugees in the Manus Island detention center in Lombrum held out for weeks when the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea cut off food, drinking water, electricity, and medical support. The siege that followed garnered international headlines and galvanized the refugee rights movement in Australia. It only ended when the refugees were beaten out of their prison by Papua New Guinea police.

The refugee rights movement has also won important victories. As a result of the “Let Them Stay” campaign, involving a broad coalition of nurses, doctors, churches, human rights groups, and lawyers, the Australian government backed down and allowed hundreds of people to remain in Australia.

In 2019, the Greens won passage of the Medevac Bill, which was also supported by independents and Labor. This compelled the government to bring refugees in need of medical aid to Australia for treatment.

Immigration authorities detained refugees brought to Australia under the Medevac law in facilities around the country. In 2020 and 2021, following concerted resistance by the refugees and their community supporters, immigration authorities released many of these refugees into the community.

Beating Back Racism

Repeated international condemnation from the United Nations and international human rights groups has failed to deter successive Australian governments from their brutal course. To the contrary — Australia’s policy has emboldened right-wing regimes around the world.

When discussing Australia’s refugee policies, Donald Trump told former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, “You are worse than I am,” and “We should do that, too.” Former prime minister Tony Abbott encouraged the anti-immigrant policies of Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

Far-right groups across Europe have adopted Australia’s approach, making Kevin Rudd’s “No Way” slogan their own. Under Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom is actively pursuing a policy of offshore detention, cloaked in language identical to that used by Howard, Rudd, and Abbott.

Adopting anti-refugee racism only bolsters the Right. It is an inescapable truth that whenever center-left parties have advocated anti-refugee policies, they have failed at the ballot box. Since 2001, in seven federal elections, the Australian Labor Party has won majority government just once. That was in 2007, when Rudd promised a more humane approach than the conservatives.

Conversely, refugees and their supporters have only won victories when broad left-wing coalitions have made uncompromising demands for a more humane approach to refugees and asylum seekers. With no end in sight to international conflicts, and as increasing numbers of people are displaced by climate change, this question will only become more urgent.

The Australian left must steel itself for campaigns and elections to come. We can only win by countering racism and fearlessly advocating for humane policies toward refugees and people seeking asylum.