Tampa key players look back

The Tampa ship captain, former immigration minister Phillip Ruddock, a former SAS commander and a refugee relive the Tampa ordeal and ponder whether they would do it all again, Ron Sutton reports.

Amin Sharzad, a refugee, would do it all again. Philip Ruddock, the immigration minister, would not change a thing. Neither would the ship captain, Arne Rinnan.

But when Peter Tinley looks back a decade later at the handling of what has come to be known as the Tampa boat crisis, or simply The Tampa, he sees it all differently. The Tampa was arguably the defining moment in Australia's still flammable debate over boat people arriving at its shores.

Peter Tinley was second-in-command of the SAS counter-terrorism force sent to stop the Norwegian ship from bringing over 400 rescued boat people to Christmas Island. Now a soldier-turned-politician in Western Australia, his view of it all has followed a similar trajectory: what he first saw as emergency military action, he now sees as overt political act.

“I have a personal belief -- and I do stress this is a personal belief and in hindsight -- that the use of the SAS was considered the best statement that the government of the day could make about its view on border security,” he told SBS.

“In other words, we are going to deploy, at the shortest notice the most highly qualified troops in the Australian defence inventory for the conduct of counter-terrorist activities to seize this vessel.

“And, in fact, the vessel was anchored. We drove up to it in inflatable craft, which is not exactly a robust assault craft, and boarded using the ship's own gangway. Now, why that wasn't attempted by a naval vessel, or a customs vessel ... Or, indeed, even the harbourmaster of Christmas Island could have done the same task," he said.


August the 26th, 2001, began as a classic tale of heroism at sea, as Captain Rinnan's container ship answered the distress call for a leaking Indonesian ferry adrift in the Indian Ocean. It turned into one of the biggest pieces of political theatre in modern Australian history.

Shortly after midday in Canberra, Rescue Coordination Centre Australia broadcast the call for help, describing a 35-metre Indonesian-type vessel with 80-plus persons on board. The vessel, it reported, had SOS and Help written on the roof.

The rescue centre described a location lying in international waters about 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island. The Tampa, steaming from Fremantle to Singapore at the time, halfway through its voyage around the world, quickly changed course and headed for the boat.

When it arrived -- the first sighting came three-and-a-half hours later -- Captain Rinnan and his crew were stunned at what they found.

The vessel was actually a triple-decker wooden ferry, holding not about 80 people, but, it would turn out, 438. Of the 438, five were Indonesian crew members, barely more were Sri Lankan and Pakistani asylum seekers, and the rest were Afghans, mostly minority Hazara.

All had reached Indonesia from a wide array of starting points, and they set out for Australia one morning before dawn aboard the K-M Palapa 1.


Amin Sharzad was 21 years old at the time, older than many of his fellow passengers, who included 43 children as well as 26 women, some of them pregnant. The boat went bad early, he says, and had been drifting in rough seas for three days, all hope long since abandoned, when the Tampa suddenly appeared on the horizon.

“When the Tampa came, and they said, 'First, we're going to rescue you, we're going to take you out from this boat," we were very, very happy," Mr Sharzad told SBS.

“When we came to the Tampa that was a really big ship with lots of containers, you know, the big containers, we'd been on the (deck) in front of the containers -- we'd been over there -- but when we saw each other with our friends, we were saying to each other, "Congratulations, a new life!"

To the asylum seekers on board the Tampa, that meant a new life in the West. But the Australian government had other ideas.

Its intense lobbying had, by then, convinced Indonesia to take over the rescue, and officials there told the Tampa to bring the asylum seekers to the Indonesian port of Merak.

The Tampa briefly started for there, but a delegation of five highly agitated asylum seekers soon appeared on the ship's bridge, insisting on Australia or another Western country. Their parting, dangerous words: “Remember, we have nothing to lose”.

Arne Rinnan, the veteran Tampa captain, decided to change course and head for Christmas Island, several hours closer anyway than Merak. But when he asked permission to unload his passengers there, arguing the asylum seekers' health and anger made it an emergency, the Australian government refused.

If Captain Rinnan entered Australian waters, it suggested, it just might charge him with people-smuggling. Now threatened from a second direction, the Norwegian captain briefly tried a slow, disguised turn towards Indonesia once again.

But when asylum seekers figured it out and threatened to jump overboard, he again headed his ship for Christmas Island, a move he still readily defends a decade later.

“It's a rule at sea to help and assist people in distress, and that's what we were doing,” he said. “And we were doing the best we could to get them safely ashore after we had picked them up from the sea".


The boundary of Australia's territorial waters sits 22 kilometres from Christmas Island.

The Tampa sat there until August the 29th, Captain Rinnan, with the Norwegian government's support, pleading again to be allowed to take the asylum seekers to the island. He reported several were unconscious, others were suffering from dysentery, but the Australian government still refused.

It did not want them applying for asylum in Australia, and Philip Ruddock, the immigration minister for the then Howard Government, still insists today that was the right move.

Mr Ruddock says, for one thing, Indonesia was on the way to where the Tampa was ultimately headed and, for another, there was a lesson that had to be imposed.

“We took the view that the vessel should continue to ply its original route and that he would not succumb to that duress,” he told SBS.

“And having done so, we were also of the view that, if we simply rolled over and said it's good enough for anybody to stand over a captain and say, 'Sail me to Australia,' that's neither in the interests of the management of the seas nor in the interests of Australia, who wanted to protect its borders”.

And that is where the SAS came in. Three days after picking up the asylum seekers, becoming increasingly worried about both their and his crew's well-being, Arne Rinnan decided to head into Australian waters.

About seven kilometres from Christmas Island, the Tampa dropped anchor. Ten minutes later, the SAS counter-terrorism force was boarding, and their leader was ordering Captain Rinnan to leave the area. He refused.

The ensuing showdown, pulling in the Norwegian, Indonesian and eventually New Zealand governments as the United Nations watched from afar, would play out for six more days.


On September the 3rd, the asylum seekers were finally transferred to Australia's HMAS Manoora. New Zealand had agreed to settle the children and families, 150 people in all.

And under a new so-called Pacific Solution from the Howard Government, the remaining men would go to a detention centre on the island of Nauru to have their claims assessed.

In the next three years, New Zealand would take more, a total of over 200 in all, nearly half the entire boatload from the Palapa. Sweden took seven, Norway settled two, and Canada took one, all of them joining close family relatives. Four more flew home to Sri Lanka, three to Pakistan.

And another 179 sent to Nauru eventually gave up on their dreams and accepted government payments to return to the deadly reality of Afghanistan for two thousand dollars each.
Just 28 managed to settle in Australia, and, even then, only on temporary protection visas.

Exactly how many live in Australia today is unclear, but Amin Sharzad is one of a small, close circle of Tampa survivors settled around Melbourne.

Ten years later, he is asked, if he had known how the drama was going to unfold, would he do it again? His answer is quick -- and succinct. “Uh, yes”, Sharzad said.

The handling of the Tampa affair would change Australia's political landscape dramatically. In the aftermath, the Howard Government immediately rallied from behind in the opinion polls and moved in front.

Then the September 11 attacks in the United States a week later only added to a fear that terrorists would try to reach Australia any way they could. In October came the Children Overboard affair, where the Government claimed a boat of asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea to try to gain entry into Australia.

The boat was later revealed to have been sinking when the children went into the water and were saved by an Australian naval crew. But the image stuck. When the Government launched its election campaign later that October, John Howard captured the mood of the times with one of the most enduring lines of his political career.

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” Howard said at the time," Howard said. The next month, his Government was re-elected.

And, 10 years later, as a now-Labor government floats a so-called Malaysia Solution, the major parties are still fiercely fighting to convince voters which one can stop the boats.

Source SBS

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch