The Tampa Affair

Some may remember the Tampa incident at Christmas Island in 2001, when Australian Special Forces (SAS) stormed on board the Tampa heavily armed, with orders to force the Master to take his ship out of Australian waters, still with 438 survivors on board.

The SAS Commander went to the bridge to execute his order from the Government.
The Captain just said; NO. I have declared an emergency and asked for assistance per Maritime Law. Now leave my bridge. Tell your men to put their weapons back on your boat and start helping the survivors as requested.

The incident was eventually resolved and the Tampa could continue on her lawful passage to Singapore. When she came to Sydney on her next trip, the SAS Commander came on board and gave the highest honour he could, the regimental plaque, to the Captain in recognition of him having handle the situation very professionally, not making them into pirates by actually following order, which they would have been the moment the ship hit international waters.

The Tampa Affair changed how Australia handled “boat people”, not always to the better. Her is an article about Tampa Affair for those who are interested:

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Here is more detail of the actual incident:


On the efficacy of turning back migrant ships as a measure to avoid people dying at sea:

they also stopped coming when the gov reminded everyone that whomever arrives illegally by boat will never get any permit to live in Australia

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At the time of the crisis, the Minister for Defence, MR Peter Reith, made a visit to the large naval training establishment under my command. We talked about it after he asked what I thought. I expressed severe concern for the plight of the Tampa’s master and the extremely difficult situation he was in.

The Minister confided to me his and his government’s absolute resolution about the asylum seekers. He said “They will NEVER set foot in Australia.” I expressed reservations but the policy was ultimately right.

Australia has largely stopped illegal immigration by boats by what may seem harsh measures. Boats are intercepted, turned back and escorted clear. Boats claim they have insufficient fuel etc but are given fuel. Boats that are unseaworthy or made that way by their crews are sunk and the people transferred to standard shipping lifeboats, escorted or towed to the territorial waters of Indonesia, whence most came, and sent with the minimum fuel towards the coast. It works. Passengers (asylum seekers) refuse to pay for boats that can’t land them.

The end result is that the people smugglers’ business model is defeated, illegal immigration drops and the public are far more receptive of far higher rates of legitimate refugee settlement and legal immigration. Australia has just about the highest resettlement rates per capital in the world.

If you allow illegal immigrants to self select who comes, public tolerance for genuine refugees drops dramatically.

Many of the illegal immigrants who made it to Australian waters and were landed, now languish in foreign camps on Manus Is and Nauru (they aren’t detained) free to return home or set up in another country. The Government remains committed that they will not be resettled in Australia. Some have even gone to the USA (where they’ll have to work their way up).)

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“Migrants” can get a cheaper safer passage by commercial airline. Only illegals have to hire unseaworthy boats. Best not to risk it.

I posted this because of the blatant disregard of Maritime Law by Australia, not to start a debate about the rights of refugees, which many of the people picked up by Tampa was later proven to be, or the right of people to seek asylum. (Migrants are people seeking work in another country)

The similarity with what is happening to Grace I and Stena Impero (minus any refugees/asylum seekers/migrant) is striking. They both sailed in Straits that is internationally recognised as open to free navigation. None of them had actually broken any laws (yet?) at the time they were stormed by armed personnel from a foreign country, against international Maritime Law.

The difference is that they didn’t have a tough old Captain who told off heavily armed Commandos and lectured them on that same Maritime Law.

Which law?

I think you’ll find that normal maritime law suggests people picked up at sea are landed at the next port of call of the rescuing ship. in this case the "refugees’ threatened the captain in order to land them in Australia, their (illegally) chosen destination.

Australia dealt with this effectively. There was utter determination in the government not to allow these people to land and they didn’t. If they had, asylum seeker boats would have sabotaged themselves regularly when a nice (preferably Norwegian) merchantman approached and mysteriously started sinking and requiring the rescue of hundreds of people conveniently close to Christmas Is.

Nobody disputes the right to seek asylum but in the FIRST country. These “asylum seekers” had crossed many nations in their quest to get to Australia. They can be granted asylum anywhere except Australia. Our Prime Minister said it best. “we will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they arrive”. Refugees still come (legally) in large numbers to Australia. Far more than Norway for that matter. Our record is almost unmatched.

I think you’ll find maritime law isn’t quite up to the challenges of the competing interests of determined illegal immigrants (well supported by nosey nefarious organisations) versus the legitimate sovereign rights of national borders.

You will find the respect was on both sides. I expressed sympathy for the captain, as I said, directly to the Minister for Defence responsible for the soldiers during the crisis and the subsequent naval involvement. Perhaps you might have some sympathy for the captain of the RAN ship required to carry the Tampa asylum seekers afterwards with their indescribably disgusting behaviour when they were aboard. Was that in your article? Would you, as a captain of a ship carrying “survivors” rescued at sea at least expect them to be grateful for their salvation rather than demanding, even threatening, their taxi deliver them forthwith to their desired port?

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I think you will find it very difficult to avoid that this is seen in the light of contemporary migration by unseaworthy boats in general, and of the developing situation in the Med in particular.

The article you posted reinforces my belief that we (European nations) are at least partially responsible for the massive loss of life by encouraging this activity rather than shutting it down.

As you point out, The Tampa Affair is in many ways more interesting than The Rackete Drama in that the actions of the Australian government were unquestionably against the intention of SOLAS 33.1.1

I’m sorry for bumping it off the rails…

In what way?

You’ve directed my attention to the actual wording of the regulations, for which I’m grateful, having never really needed to refer to any such rule book previously. I simply know what I have to do in any distress situation at sea. But I note in there the words taking into account the particular circumstances of the case.

This was not a straight rescue at sea of survivors of a vessel legitimately in distress. The distress was contrived with the aim of forcing a ship to ‘rescue survivors’ so to speak, and carry them to their destination in Australia.

In fact the ‘survivors’ confronted the captain aggressively after it was obvious to them that the Tampa was heading for Indonesia where the Indonesian Government had directed the ship to the port of Merak, the closest suitable port for the Tampa. They demanded to be landed in Australia.

Were they acting appropriately for ‘survivors’? They commandeered the ship. Was that in accordance with SOLAS?

Anyway, this case comes under that nice phrase taking into account the particular circumstances of the case. The clash was between ungrateful ‘survivors’ and a government determined to control its borders.

The situation was resolved, the ‘survivors’ found themselves on a nice tropical island to mull over their next move, the government won a resounding election showing which side the people were on, and a policy that is now the envy of the world was born.

The compassionate case as a result of this show of strength is that legal refugees arrive in large numbers (per capital) in Australia and that the public largely accepts and welcomes them whereas they don’t accept or welcome self selecting boat arrivals.

Compare this to the ‘compassionate’ response of the subsequent Labor Government which loosened the policy, attracting many tens of thousands of asylum seekers, drowning well over a thousand of them, imposing a huge financial burden on the taxpayers to accommodate and sustain in every part of the land, and losing the support of the people and, eventually, government.

Fortunately the government has changed yet again and the strong border policy is now fully accepted in both sides of parliament, if grudgingly by some ‘compassionate’ idiots on the left.

The niceties of SOLAS takes second place to the deterrent value of this strong policy which saves lives at sea.


SOLAS is not saving lives at sea?? It has been the backbone of Maritime rules to do just that for several decade, but it is being weakened when some states take it on their own to put political expediency and elections before established maritime laws and customs, whether written or unwritten.

I have been Captain of a Drillship that did rescue Vietnamese refugees that took to the sea in unseaworthy boats, was robbed by pirates and denied entry by countries around the South China Sea. During the exodus from Vietnam nearly exactly 40 years ago, in June-July 1979 we picked up 2300 refugees in one 28 day period. (In total we had over 4000 refugees passing over our ship in my 18 months on board)
I was told by the oil company we worked for to stop picking them up and to use fire hoses to keep them away from the rig (as some others did)
I told “Buster”, the VP in charge in Jkt., that he should come on board to do so. “I’ll supply you with a fire hose and you can spray down women and children in leaking boats.” He never took up the offer.

I also got a call from an Indonesian General that demanded that I should stop sending survivors in to the refugee camp at Anambas Islands. My answer was that as a seaman it was my duty to rescue people in danger at sea, no matter who they were and whether they had damaged their boats deliberately. If we would not do so, we should not be at sea.

When my hitch was over I was fully prepared that I would be fired,or even be declared persona non grata in Indonesia and “took my boots to town” as it is termed in oilfield language. None of that happened though. I was back on board 28 days later, still with a few boats arriving, but not as many as on my last hitch.

Yes I have some sympathy for any Captain that end up with a lot of unwanted people on board. I don’t think the Captain on the Maroona had the most problems, being well protected on the passage to Nauru via Torres Strait, with a re-supply stop off Darwin, if I remember right.

In one case during the exodus we spotted a LCP full of refugees heading for us while we were flaring. I asked the Captain on our Standby boat to fend them off away from the rig and to assess if it would be possible to just escort them in towards Anambas. He reported that there appeared to be 350-400 people on board and they were short of fuel. When he tried to refuel it the LCP got unstable. Some of the refugees started to climb on board the OSV .
He ended up with an estimated 850 on his deck. With a crew of only 12 the German Captain got worried that they would try to take over his boat and force him to take them to Singapore, or wherever.
We gave him some sacks of rice a lot of Detol, (from experience there were a lot people suffering from rashes) and sent him on his way towards the UNHCR refugee camp at Anambas Islands.There they refused to accept the refugees as it was already overcrowded.They eventually relented after 2 days, when several refugees had died on the deck.

Yes I do have some experience of picking up survivors (not only refugees btw) and I can sympathies with others in similar situations.


I’m not saying well established maritime law is wrong or that it’s not saving lives. I’m simply making the valid point that it isn’t absolute. It isn’t the only law and it doesn’t take priority over a nation’s right to protect its borders. There are competing laws and competing rights.

The Italians have now lost patience with their influx. Other nations are waking up too. Being compassionate kills innocent people. Eventually everyone gets sick of being used as a doormat for illegal immigrants to trample over on their way to the most lucrative welfare system. I don’t blame the immigrants. Who wouldn’t want to better their lives?

Using the traditional compassion of mariners to assist those in distress at sea to facilitate illegal immigrants is wrong. Australia’s policy works. Eventually others will follow us but thousands will die needlessly at sea before the level heads and strong policies win over the soft hearted with their loud voices and sobbing compassion.

Just to round off the Tampa thing, remember it took place in Indonesia’s SAR area placing responsibilities for rescue on it. It initially accepted Tampa to go to Merak and the captain was doing that. The survivors rebelled. The ship was turned back to Christmas Is. where there are no suitable facilities. The captain tried again later to try a slow imperceptible turn over several hours but was again discovered and ordered back.

At some stage Indonesia changed its mind and refused entry, hardly the action of a responsible SAR nation. Any criticism for them?

Finally, Indonesia has now come around to supporting Australia’s policy. It is far stricter in preventing immigration from the immigrant nations. It has accepted the lifeboats Australia has sent its way. It now accepts that it is in its interest to control its own borders and prevent people smugglers from plying their evil trade.

That’s a win,win,win! Two nations happier and no deaths at sea. Tell me SOLAS doesn’t want that result.

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UN law says you have to claim asylum in the first country you can, flying from Sri lanka to Indonesia, paying a people smuggler, so hence being part of a money laundering chain makes you a criminal so how can you expect to float over to a country of choice then claim asylum?
The ship that rescues them to take them to the nearest safe port gets hijacked by the asylum seekers to go to somewhere else?
Sri Lanka so dangerous Australians are buying holidays homes there yet people are leaving to claim asylum, anything wrong with that picture?

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There is a difference between illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. It is well defined, but the terms seams to be used more according to the view of the speaker/writer than in accordance with the accepted definition.
Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and the Protocol of 1967, as is Italy, the EU states and USA. (Indonesia is not)

Australia was the SAR at the time and requested ships to assist, after a RAAF surveillance plane had spotted the boat and reported it in peril of sinking. Tampa responded and performed a rescue.
Even if you and others insists on calling them “illegal immigrants”, the people that was rescued was “Survivors” according to maritime law. The Australian Rescue Centre accepted them as such, until the politicians got involved.

I don.t know if you, as Master, would have risked the welfare and maybe the live of your crew, if you should find yourself in a similar situation, but I would like to think that you would have done the same as Capt. Rinnan, put his crew before commercial considerations
He had no reason to believe that Australia would not accept the survivors and he did know that Christmas Island did not have a berth that could accommodate his ship. (One of your Ministers tried to make him out to be a idiot that didn’t know that)

I don’t know if you, or anybody else on this forum has been in the situation where they look down at pleading women and children in a sinking boat alongside their ship?
As Master you have the authority to decide life and death in such situations, but I would think that everybody here would have had the guts to pick them up, come what may. (??)

I watched boats loaded with refugee heading for our rig, anchored and drilling and unable to move away, while ships steaming past gave them a wide berth to avoid seeing the pleading eyes of desperate people. They did so because they did not want the trouble that would be encountered if they did pick them up.

PS> During the Vietnam exodus some flag states guaranteed asylum to any refugee picked up by ships under their flag, but that was the exception. (Panama was not among them)

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No that is not correct. The is an EU rule (Dublin Regulations) and not in the UNHCR rules:

Last I saw Australia has not joined the EU (yet).

Yes that’s true. There are many examples of each. People in boats making their way to Australia to enter illegally are illegal immigrants. They depart illegally from Indonesia and attempt to illegally enter Australia. Australia welcomes refugees from all over the world. They are declared refugees well before they are allowed to enter Australia. They come legally.

Not everyone in the boats is attempting illegal immigration. The crew, for instance, are mostly poor fishermen. They are detained for a period and sent home. They are detained because they have acted illegally in both illegal departure from Indonesia and illegal entry to Australia by not going through (in fact evading) normal port of entry procedures.

It seems you are very much for unlimited numbers of people jumping in boats and trying their luck in another country … illegally.

I accept some are refugees, but not all, and not even most.

No. This was Indonesia’s responsibility. This from Wikipedia.

“The Australian government denied any obligation under international law as Christmas Island lies within a zone designated as Indonesia’s responsibility for rescue according to an agreement made in 1990 between Australia and Indonesia. Indonesia had also accepted co-ordination of the rescue, and the closest suitable port was Merak in Indonesia.”

You may be confused because Australia was far more aware of (and diligent in) shipping movements in the area. We conducted regular surveillance by air and sea. Attempts by Australian authorities to rouse the attention of the Indonesian authority went unanswered. Indonesia largely ignores its responsibility south of its archipelago. In decades of my naval service (including responsibility for patrol operations north of Australia) I never saw an Indonesian naval vessel anywhere in the Indian Ocean.

For nearly the millionth time I have said (and said again and again) that I supported him. He acted well and entirely appropriately. He is highly regarded by everyone in Australia. But he wasn’t the biggest elephant in this fight. He, his ship, his survivors, and his nation were just pawns in something vastly bigger. On the one side people (largely from Afghanistan and they didn’t catch the boat from there) who legitimately wanted a better life supported by nefarious groups and people smugglers. On the other a government with legitimate rights to protect its borders from just such illegal activities.

End of story. Sovereign rights (there are lots of international laws about them) trump the niceties of maritime law because of the particular circumstances of this case.

Yes I have been. Many of my naval contemporaries had to pull survivors from the sea after their boats supplied by the evil people smugglers sank or were deliberately sunk when a naval ship came in sight. Many mates suffer from severe ongoing conditions having had to pluck floating bodies of children from the sea. Don’t dare impugn anybody in this saga. As a mariner, I rescue those in distress and have risked my ship to do so. No member of the RAN has been faulted in rescuing and handling survivors.

The fight is at a different level altogether.

At the time (2001) the SAR responsibility was accepted by Australia, who requested Tampa to assist.
Now it is a bit more murky, but still costing the lives of refugees, or whatever you prefer to call them. (They are still people and still dies, just the same):

The “Children overboard” incident is another case of Howard’s heroic attempt to stop the “boat people” from reaching Australia, no matter how many died in the process:

That is good to know and as it should be, as long as the risk is acceptable to the safety of own ship and crew.

I wish that was how everybody acted, but it is not always so, both because of commercial pressure and because governments threaten the Master with prison if he follow age old maritime customs. Not a problem if you are a Naval Commander maybe??