Academic journal article Refuge

Protecting the Borderline and Minding the Bottom Line: Asylum Seekers and Politics in Contemporary Australia

Academic journal article Refuge

Protecting the Borderline and Minding the Bottom Line: Asylum Seekers and Politics in Contemporary Australia

Article excerpt


In late 2001, the Australian government put asylum seekers at the centre of its re-election campaign by refusing to accept 438 asylum seekers picked up by the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa. It then introduced legislation giving the Commonwealth powers to interdict asylum seekers at sea, and to forcibly return them to the port of embarkation. These measures extend the punitive regime of mandatory detention in privately owned and operated centres This paper examines recent legislative and identity politics in the context of the long-standing white Australian fear of invasion from the north.


Vers la fin de l'annee 2001, le gouvernement australien playa les demandeurs d'asile an centre de sa campagne electorale pour un nouveau mandat en refoulant 438 demandeurs d'asile recueillis par le navire cargo Tampa. Le gouvernement dposa ensuite un projet de loi conferant an Commonwealth des pouvoirs accrus lui permettant de stopper des demandeurs d'asile en haute mer et de les reconduire deforce a leurport d'embarquement. Cesmesures &endent aussi la politique ripressive de dtention obligatoire daps des centres appartenant au secteur privy et exploiti0s par le secteur privy Cet article se penche sur les politiques loislatives et identitaires r6centes daps le contexte de la crainte qu'ont les australiens de race blanche de longue date dune invasion versant du nord.

Introduction and Political Context

Australian social researcher Hugh MacKay regularly convenes focus groups to test the national mood and gauge the temperature of certain issues. His July meetings with voters indicated "strong ... passions aroused by fears of illegal immigrants" from which he concluded that the government's new policy of rejecting asylum seekers is "a calculated attempt to inflame those fears and heighten our sense of insecurity for blatant political purposes." (1) The new policy was a response to the "Tampa crisis" of August and September during which the Australian government refused to allow 438 mainly Afghan asylum seekers to land on Australian soil, a decision which involved the Australian Special Air Services (SAS) taking command of the Norwegian container vessel the MV Tampa. The Tampa, at the request of Australian Search and Rescue (AusSAR), had picked up the asylum seekers from a small wooden fishing boat seventy-five nautical miles from Christmas Island (Australia) and 246 nautical miles from the Indonesian port of Merak on August 26. AusSAR instructed the captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, to sail for Merak where permission to land the asylum seekers had been given by the Indonesia Search and Rescue Authority. However, the asylum seekers protested this course of action and threatened the captain and his crew. Rinnan contacted authorities at AusSAR, told them of the situation and met no opposition to his request to make for Christmas Island. He was told to anchor offshore once he arrived and await customs officials. But in the early hours of August 27, a Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) official acting on instructions from the secretary of the Prime Minister's department, contacted Rinnan, threatened charges for breaches of the Migration Act, and instructed Rinnan to sail for Indonesia. However, Rinnan anchored his ship just outside Australian waters and waited while a heated argument developed between the Australian and Norwegian governments. Rinnan's repeated requests that a doctor be sent to the ship were ignored by the Australian government. Concerned about the deteriorating health of the asylum seekers aboard his ship and determined to secure medical assistance, Rinnan contacted the harbourmaster at Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island, late in the morning of August 29 and informed him he was sailing into Australian waters. Within half an hour, the Prime Minister, John Howard, instructed the SAS to board and secure the ship, which was done by the early afternoon. …

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