Off-shore migrants

The Pacific Solution has turned the country into an impregnable fortress. Anyone crossing its borders is turned away.Or detained on Pacific islands.

Fifteen years ago, asylum seekers from Afghanistan were prevented from reaching Aus- tralia. The events, which came to be known as the Tampa Affair, turned migration policy into a central issue in the Australian public debate. The term “boat people” became a common expression in the 1970s and ’80s when thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese refugees headed towards Oceania in search of political asylum. Australia was was willing to accept them with open arms, putting an end to the long and dark chapter of the “White Australia Policy” that dated back to measures aimed first at exterminating and then absorbing the country’s aboriginal in- habitants. Australia had opened up to multiculturalism and was beginning a new chapter in its history.

But the events that transpired be- tween August and November of 2001 were another watershed. The rose- tinted fairy tale of multiculturalism and a progressive Australia at the end of the 20th century gave way to the closed Australia of the new mil- lennium, marking a key moment in the evolution of the country’s mi- gration policy.

On 26 August 2001, a Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, rescued 438 Afghans whose vessel had suffered serious damage while attempting to reach the small Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Captain Arne Rinnen’s cargo ship carried dozens of the passengers – wounded people and pregnant women as well as over 40 children – in conditions of terrible health and sanitation. For three days, the ship was prevented from entering Aus- tralian waters.

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