Australia’s Treatment of Refugees: the Tampa case

Julian Burnside


All great truths begin as blasphemies.  – George Bernard Shaw



The Australian government recently decided to adopt a tougher stance in relation to refugees who arrive here informally. In adopting that stance, the government has exposed Australia to international censure. It has put us in breach of our obligations under international conventions, and it has betrayed a deeply unattractive element in the Australian character. It did this for electoral advantage, at a time when Australia receives a minimal number of refugees, and treats appallingly those who arrive here.

The government’s handling of the Tampa “crisis” was a triumph of electoral cynicism over humanitarian need. It exposed the difficulty Australians have in acknowledging the conflict of need and advantage. The refugee problem involves a choice between minor self-sacrifice and major betrayal of humanitarian standards.


There are, broadly speaking, two sorts of people who have come to Australia seeking to live here. First, there are those who choose to move here for reasons of personal or domestic convenience, or for economic advancement. And there are those who leave their country of origin because to stay there would involve the risk of persecution, torture or death on account of their political views, religious beliefs, ethnic origins, or the various other less common reasons which provoke dominant groups to seek the destruction of minorities.

Australia, like most countries, regulates the entry of the first group. There are sound social, economic and demographic reasons why this sort of voluntary migration should be regulated.

We also, unlike many other countries, regulate the arrival of the second group. The arrival of the second group involves the same social, economic and demographic considerations as the first group. But their claim to asylum introduces an additional dimension to the problem.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 22 million refugees in the world at present.  Of that number, about 8 million are displaced but remain within their country of origin. Of the balance, most are in camps established near land borders with their country of origin. The number of refugees and asylum seekers who cross the seas to other countries is small: a little over 1 million per year. Of that number, a tiny percentage make their way to Australia.

Looking at the picture globally, the majority of refugees are to be found in Asia, Africa and Europe: together, those continents house 20 million of the world’s refugees1. North America houses 1 million. Australia and New Zealand together hold 76,000.

About 90% of people from Afghanistan who seek asylum in Australia are found to have genuine claims for asylum.

Given Australia’s physical size and relative wealth, the arrival here of a few thousand people per year desperately fleeing persecution, seems a minor issue – a charitable gesture as obvious and painless as dropping a dollar in a charity collection tin.

We have reduced our rate of refugee intake from 25,000 per year to around 10,000 per year in a period when the number of refugees and displaced people in the world has grown substantially and our population has increased by almost 3 million.

The crucial, if obvious, point about asylum seekers is that those who are genuine – between 40% and 90% of them depending on country of origin – have a special claim on our hospitality because of the consequences to them if they do not leave their home country.

The Response

The Migration Act makes provision for asylum seekers. If a person without a visa is in Australian territorial waters and seeking to land, migration officers must take them into “immigration detention”, and bring them into the “migration zone”. Broadly speaking, the migration zone is any place on shore, or adjacent to a port. (Since the Tampa “crisis” parts of Australia have been excised from the migration zone, notably Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef).

A person in these circumstances has a limited time in which to apply for a protection visa. If they are refused a protection visa, or if they do not apply for one, or if they ask to leave Australia, then they are removed from the country.

In practice, these people are held in custody for years as their claims to asylum are checked and assessed. Because they are kept out of public view, and because they do not vote, they are invisible to most Australians and irrelevant to most politicians.

It is a curious thing then that the Prime Minister decided to single out one and make an example of them.

The arrival of the Tampa

On 26 August 2001, a leaky boat carrying about 450 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, began to sink. The Norwegian ship, the MV Tampa, found it. The Captain, Arne Rinnan, fulfilled his duty as a mariner and picked them up. He planned to take them back to Indonesia where they had embarked on their ill-fated voyage of despair. They protested. A small group of them threatened suicide if they were not taken to Christmas Island. The Captain saw that many of the asylum seekers were sick, and considered it too risky to return to Indonesia. The Tampa was 246 miles from the nearest Indonesian port; it was 75 miles from Christmas Island. It headed for Christmas Island. Captain Rinnan radioed for medical help, but none was given. He entered Australian territorial waters. Four miles off Christmas Island he was ordered to stop.

The Cabinet it seems had decided to prevent the asylum seekers reaching Australian soil. This odd decision has never been explained, except with the rhetoric of “sending a clear message to people smugglers and queue jumpers that Australia is not a soft touch”.

Plainly, the Government understood that (with an election due shortly) a show of toughness against helpless refugees would be electorally popular amongst the large number of Australians who had responded positively to far-Right racist political programs.

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, had previously shown his skill in assessing and harnessing right-wing populism. In 1997 he had used polls to assess community attitudes toward the militant Maritime Union of Australia after mass-sackings of their members had forced them into a major industrial dispute that included blockading the employers workplace. In that dispute, however, support for the government and the employers it was backing began to dwindle after images of protesting workers facing attack dogs and security forces in balaclavas hit the newspapers and the television screens.

Howard was determined that, this time, the public would not get access to such disturbing images2. He ordered that the port of Christmas Island, be closed to ensure that no boats could approach the Tampa. The SAS, an elite Australian army unit, took control of the ship. The Captain was allowed only minimal contact with the outside world. The press were not allowed anywhere near the ship. Despite repeated requests from lawyers and others, no Australian was allowed to speak to any of the refugees. The physical circumstances meant that no images of individual refugees were available. At best, film footage showed distant images of tiny figures under an awning on the deck of the ship.

By the same technique, the stories of the refugees were suppressed. By preventing the press from having any access to the refugees, the Government was able to advance its cynical objectives with dishonest rhetoric, wholly unimpeded by facts. Although the misery of the refugees’ situation was obvious enough none of them could be seen as human beings. None of them could tell their stories. Howard’s crucial aim was achieved: the refugees were not seen publicly as individual people for whom Australian citizens could have human sympathy.

The importance of that aspect of the government’s strategy was made clear on 23 October. On that day, Australia learned that, a few days earlier, a boat had set sail from Indonesia, bound for Australia. It carried over 500 asylum seekers. It sank in mid-ocean, and 353 were drowned. The survivors told the story, in harrowing detail. It was front-page news for days: and tragic images of individuals and their stories of grief and loss dominated the news. Suddenly, the asylum seekers really were human beings who called on our human sympathy.

If similar images had been seen during the Tampa crisis, the public response would have been quite different. Without such images, the struggle for justice fell onto the shoulders of a few lawyers with human rights concerns.

The litigation

One such figure was John Manetta. He was deeply troubled by the standoff at Christmas Island and he began research into certain provisions of the Migration Act. From this, he came to the view that if the army boarded a ship in these circumstances, it was obliged to bring the refugees to shore.

The Victorian Council for Civil Liberties brought an action seeking to compel the Government to perform its duty under the Migration Act and bring the asylum seekers to the migration zone where their applications for asylum could be processed. It also sought habeas corpus in aid of that application.

A solicitor, Eric Vardalis, also brought an application that was heard together with one being mounted by a human rights group that I represented known as Liberty Victoria. Vardalis sought to offer the refugees pro bono legal help in seeking asylum. The argument he mounted was based on several provisions within the Migration Act that entitle applicants to the benefit of legal advice and Vardalis sought to give effect to that right.


Our argument was straightforward. In relation to the question of detention we pointed out that MV Tampa was in Australian territorial waters while carrying 460 asylum seekers it had rescued at sea on 26 August 2001. We further noted that members of the Australian Defence Force (the SAS) had boarded the ship on or about 30 August whilst it was within Australian territorial waters. We then noted that the asylum seekers were being held on the ship and were not allowed to leave.

Meanwhile, the people on Christmas Island were not allowed to launch their boats, and were therefore unable to travel out to the ship. Indeed, no boat was allowed to approach the Tampa without permission of the SAS. Therefore, the asylum seekers were not able to communicate with lawyers in Australia and all attempts by Australian lawyers to contact them had failed.

As we saw it, the entire government case was on shaky legal ground. Section 245F (1) of the Migration Act3 gives an officer power to board a foreign ship that is “outside the territorial sea of a foreign country”. An officer, for the purpose of the section, includes a member of the Australian Defence Force (s. 245F (18)(b)). If an officer boards a ship under s. 245F, he may also:

  • search and examine goods;
  • require persons to answer questions;
  • detain the ship;
  • detain any person who is found on the ship and bring the person to the migration zone: section 245F (9)

There is, however, no power to detain the person without bringing them to the migration zone. If there is any room for ambiguity about the proper meaning of these provisions, it should be resolved so as to conform to Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the Refugees Convention. Article 16 provides that refugees should have free access to the courts while Article 33 prohibits expulsion or return of a refugee in any manner to territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of race, religion etc.

If an officer finds an unlawful non-citizen in the migration zone (or in Australia but outside the migration zone and seeking to enter it) the officer must detain the person.

The refugees were therefore being detained by the Australian Government, but were not being brought to the migration zone as required by the Act. Their freedom was subject to restrictions not shared by the public generally. Their custody on the ship, without being brought to the migration zone was unlawful because of section 245F (9). Unlawful custody is sufficient to justify a grant of habeas corpus.

The Government’s argument

The Government’s stance in the litigation was profoundly cynical. It denied that the refugees were detained, and it denied that the Migration Act powers had been invoked. Rather, it said that the refugees (it insisted on calling them “rescuees”) could go anywhere in the world other than Australia. It said that the Government had executive power to repel people from its borders, as a necessary facet of national sovereignty. This was a police action, not a migration issue it argued.

Meanwhile, it refused point blank to allow us any contact with the people whose rights we were seeking to protect. In Court, we asked to be given access to a spokesperson for the refugees. The Commonwealth government refused.

The Government, it seems, had decided to deal with the ‘crisis’ outside the framework of the Migration Act. After negotiations with the tiny island nation of Nauru, the Australian government announced that the Tampa refugees would be sent there. The only thing standing in the governments’ way were the courts.


IN early September, 2001 Justice North heard the action and gave his judgement:

In my view the evidence of the Respondents’ actions in the week following 26th August demonstrate that they were committed to retaining control of the fate of the rescuees in all respects. The Respondents directed where the MV Tampa was allowed to go and not to go. They procured the closing of the harbour so that the rescuees would be isolated. They did not allow communication with the rescuees. They did not consult with them about the arrangements being made for their physical relocation or future plans. After the arrangements were made the fact was announced to them, apparently not in their native language, but no effort was made to determine whether the rescuees desired to accept the arrangements. The Respondents took to themselves the complete control over the bodies and destinies of the rescuees. The extent of the control is underscored by the fact that when the arrangements were made with Nauru, there had been no decision as to who was to process the asylum applications there or under what legal regime they were to be processed. Where complete control over people and their destiny is exercised by others it cannot be said that the opportunity offered by those others is a reasonable escape from the custody in which they were held. The custody simply continues in the form chosen by those detaining the people restrained.”

Holding that the refugees were unlawfully detained, North ordered that the refugees be brought to the Australian mainland to be processed in accordance with the Migration Act. The Australian government immediately appealed and two days later that was put before the High Court.

The Appeal

In their appeal, the Commonwealth Government developed an argument based on the prerogative of the Crown. This was new. It had not formed a noticeable part of the earlier case the government had mounted in front of North.

This new argument suggested that the any sovereign nation has inherent powers and these include a power to determine who enters the nation. This power is part of the prerogative of the Crown, and is exercisable by executive and they may do so regardless of any provisions of the Migration Act.

The counter-argument is this: Parliament may legislate to grant powers to the executive. Where Parliament does so and thereby manifests an intention that the prerogative power should be replaced by the statutory power, then the executive cannot exercise the prerogative power except subject to the conditions imposed by the Parliament. In a constitutional monarchy where Parliament is the supreme body, it cannot be any surprise that Parliament chooses to replace unqualified executive power with regulated executive power.

The position facing the executive when the Tampa entered Australian waters was this: it had power to send migration officers to the ship and to take the refugees into immigration detention. It had power to wait until they landed and then take them into immigration detention. In either case, the refugees would be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the Migration Act. It asserted however a co-existing right to hold the refugees incommunicado and remove them from Australian waters so that they could be delivered to a compliant neighbour regardless of the wishes of the refugees themselves.

In a 2:1 decision given the following week, the Full Court allowed the appeal and the refugees were subsequently bundled onto Nauru where they remain effectively isolated from Australia. Although the asylum seekers had been in Australian territory, and were bound by Australian law including the Migration Act, they were denied the rights and protections offered by the Migration Act.

The Aftermath

The Commonwealth’s success on appeal has many ramifications: constitutional and humanitarian.

Let us be clear about what the majority decided: They held that the executive arm of government has a power, independent of any statutory authority, to expel aliens from Australia, and this notwithstanding that Parliament has passed laws which provide for the circumstances in which, and the means by which, the executive may do so. Thus the executive can choose whether it will subject itself to the minimal safeguards imposed by Parliament, or simply to bring out the gunboats.

The executive government in Australia has vast powers, given by a vast array of statutes and regulations. The idea that, in addition to those powers given by Parliament, they have a range of overlapping, unregulated powers exercisable outside parliamentary authority is truly alarming. The more so when we see the hypocrisy and self-delusion with which they are prepared to exercise it.

Excluding refugees

The government’s attitude to refugees is irretrievably compromised by its own duplicity. It says one thing, but its words are denied by its acts. It proclaims its adherence to international obligation whilst it betrays them in its conduct. Its attitude to refugees is not only harsh; it is stained by hypocrisy.

Let me illustrate this point with examples drawn from a ministerial briefing paper posted on the Australian government’s Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) website. In this paper, the Minister for Immigration, Mr Ruddock discussed the latest enhancements to the Border Protection legislation:

Mr Ruddock said the laws ensured that Australia’s sovereignty to decide who enters its borders, and who gets to stay here, was put beyond question.

The question is whether or not this can done by turning them away without even looking at their claim for asylum when the Refugees Convention of which Australia is a signatory, requires that a country consider any claim for asylum before turning a person away from its borders.

The briefing paper also stipulates that:

“The (new) laws include:

  • Refusal of refugee status for people refusing to prove their identity by destroying their documents en route. “

How can the government know whether a refugee on the Tampa had destroyed their identity documents en route? How can the government know whether anyone destroyed their identity documents if they refuse to allow them into the migration zone for processing. Where exactly does one go in Kabul in order to obtain travel documents? How does a person who is fleeing persecution apply for travel documents from their persecutors?

If an asylum seeker cannot provide evidence of identity, they may ask the Department to help them. That help will only be given if the asylum seeker agrees to pay the cost of gathering the evidence. I leave it to you to calculate the likelihood that an Afghan refugee could meet the cost of such an exercise.

Furthermore, the briefing paper says:

“By assisting us in our fight to repel the activities of people smugglers, these new laws will enable us to help those who are most in need of help – those people languishing in refugee camps around the world,” Mr Ruddock said.

But those most in need of help are very likely among those who take the most desperate steps to get to Australia. On 19 October 2001, 353 asylum seekers drowned at sea after their boat sank. News of it reached Australia a few days later. 421 of them had crowded onto a boat suitable for 100. Indonesian security forces had herded them onto the boat at gunpoint. Were they sufficiently in need?

The government and the opposition made noises of compassion. The government has agreed to take some of the survivors. Apparently it is necessary to drown at sea to demonstrate the required level of need.

The government’s stated concern to help those most in need seems more like a concern to help those whose distress is most visible to the public.

The Detention system

Those asylum seekers who get into Australia are routinely detained until their claims have been assessed. This process can take years. Australia is one of the few countries which adopts this approach of long-term detention. The DIMA website contains a document which sets out the standards which must be maintained at detention centres by Australian Correctional Management (ACM), a commercial operation, which is paid to run them.:

(The operating standards) ensure that the needs of detainees are met in a culturally appropriate way, while at the same time providing safe and secure detention. They focus on areas such as dignity, social interaction, safety, security, staff training, health, accommodation, food, religion, education, and individual care needs.

Compare the image with the reality.  Here is an eyewitness account of the conditions in the Woomera detention centre from an Adelaide lawyer:

  • two working toilets for 700 people, both leaking, sand on the floor to “mop up” the leaking effluent
  • four working showers, for 700 people, hot water only available after midnight
  • not allowed to take food from dining room for children or sick adults
  • no coffee/tea/food between meals, only water
  • no air conditioning, fly screens, or heating. Temperatures during the day reach 45 degrees, at night it falls below freezing; there are millions of flies
  • inmates have to queue for meals, medical attention, phones (two for 1300 people) for up to two hours. Persons seeking medical attention (including painkillers for broken leg, raging fever, tonsillitis, etc) each have to queue in the open for up to 1 1/2 hours to obtain their medication in front of the nurse.
  • nails may only be cut by the nurse, who will do ONE person per day
  • women must queue each day for their ration of tampons/disposable nappies
  • there is no baby food or formula, one woman with a six month old baby who was struggling to maintain breast feeding was advised to feed the baby powdered chicken stock mixed with water (no sterile equipement of course)
  • food is beyond description; many will not eat it

Here is a portion of an affidavit of an Iraqi woman in a detention centre. Only the names have been changed:

1.The adults were handcuffed. I asked to have my handcuffs removed so I could hold Robin, my 2-year old son. The guard did so but two other officers came up. One of the officers dragged me by my hair and pushed me against the wall. They searched my body in a humiliating way after pushing Robin into the corner. He continuously screamed and cried. The guard handcuffed me again and tried to legcuff my child. Two other officers prevented him from legcuffing my son.

2.We arrived in Port Hedland late in the afternoon but were given nothing to eat or drink until the following morning at 8.00am. For around 32 hours the children had no food.  We were held in a small room with no toilet or water facilities whatsoever…

Here is portion of an affidavit sworn by an Iraqi woman. Again, the names are anglicised for their security:

1.      I was put in a cell with Elizabeth and Alice. … Billy, our 5-year-old son was put in a solitary confinement cell.

2.      During 15 days in the Compound I begged the guards to open the door so the children could use the toilet which was located outside the cell.  For the first two days this request was refused/ignored. The children had to use a plastic bag that I found in the cell as a toilet.

3.      My son, Andrew, later described to me his experience in detention. He said: “I needed to go to the toilet and called the guards. After a few minutes four guards came … they pushed me back and held me against the wall. One guard held my legs; the other held my hands behind my back. A third guard used his arm to encircle my neck and hold me tightly. I thought I would choke. The fourth guard swore at me. When I answered back, the officer punched me in the face.

4.      In November 2000, our family lodged a complaint against the ACM to the Federal Police. The incident was registered but to date there has been no response conveyed to us. … Andrew later tried to hang himself.

Little wonder that refugees have sewn their lips together in protest. Little wonder that others have hanged themselves, and others have burned themselves alive. How much worse must it get before Australians begin to feel uncomfortable about the things which are being done in our country, in our name, by our government?

A disproportionate number of asylum seekers are held in the most remote locations. Woomera is about 6 hours drive from Adelaide, in the middle of the desert. Port Hedland is north of Perth: about an 18-hour drive. Curtin is equally remote. These God-forsaken places, in the least hospitable parts of Australia, hold over 80% of asylum seekers.

Little wonder that the central body of Amnesty International reported critically on Australia’s handling of refugees. They said:

(In Australia) more than 2,940 ”boat people”, including 500 children, were automatically detained under the Migration Act, which prohibited courts from ordering their release. Hundreds were held in tents and other improvised detention facilities in remote areas. The national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission investigated allegations that guards ill-treated immigrant detainees and neglected medical care. In September the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had to cancel plans to investigate the immigration detention regime, after the government failed to allow it to visit(emphasis added)

The government claims to exercise its powers in accordance with its international obligations. That is a lie. Australia’s systematic detention of refugees directly breaches our international obligations. Its hostile response to such groups as the Tampa refugees is a betrayal of our commitment to the human dignity of refugees.

The government, armed with the largest powers imaginable, turned the full force of those powers on the weakest and most vulnerable people on earth. It did so to placate the relaxed and comfortable, the complacent, xenophobic Australian electorate. It did so in order to take a cheap electoral advantage. Such shabby conduct deserves our contempt.

Sharing the burden

The government’s stated concern about conditions in the camps sits oddly with its new policies: the policy is directed at preventing refugees from leaving the country of first arrival in order to come to Australia.

The Refugees Convention provides:

1. Except where this Convention contains more favourable provisions, a Contracting State shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to aliens generally.

But new laws include this:

“No permanent residency for people who leave a safe country and attempt to enter Australia illegally by being transported to Christmas, Cocos, Cartier or Ashmore islands. They can never bring their families to join them, and cannot re-enter Australia if they leave for any reason.”

The Refugees Convention records the agreement of the community of nations to share equitably the humanitarian imperative of asylum among all nations, and to ensure that all refugees are treated with the dignity which is the right of all humans. By contrast, Australia’s policy is to take advantage of its geography to minimize the risk that anyone will ever be able to obtain refugee status here.

The present position

Contrary to the government’s alarmist rhetoric, there are very few refugees in Australia at present. They are people who have been accepted into the country after months or years of detention. About 4000 human beings arrive here informally by boat each year. By comparison with other countries, the total number of refugees we have accepted is pitifully small. Asia has 8 million; Africa has 5.5 million; Europe has 5.6 million; North America has 1 million. Australian and New Zelanad together have only 76,000.

We have about 4,000 in detention presently seeking to be accepted as refugees. They have committed no crime, unless it be a crime to flee persecution in a pitiable attempt to give their children and themselves a chance of a life worth living. They are not “illegals”: they are human beings.

They are being held in gaol. It is hypocrisy to call it detention. Their conditions would not be tolerated in a gaol. Their human rights are ignored, their conditions are kept secret. When ultimately they are released from detention each refugee is presented with a bill for their accommodation, at the rate of $147.50 per day. Thus, a person who suffers the misery of Woomera for 24 months is asked to pay more than $100,000 for the privilege. So, even at the end of the torment, we add insult to injury.

The future

Last year, over 8 million people arrived in Australia from overseas. Most were short-term visitors. 92,000 were migrants who were given permission to stay here permanently. About half of them came from Anglo-Saxon countries. More optimistically, about half were not from Anglo-Saxon countries. The sky did not fall.

In each of the last 2 years, about 4,000 boat people arrived. So they account for about 5% on top of the orthodox migrant intake or one refugee per 5000 Australians. They risk death at sea to get here. That risk is all too real, as recent events show. They were driven by fear and desperation to embark on such a venture. Those who, like the Tampa refugees, come from Afghanistan are fleeing one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world. Indeed, it is a regime regarded as being so bad that we are now engaged, together with the USA, in a military quest to destroy it.

We have a choice: imprison asylum seekers, in defiance of international law, or let them into the community after initial screening, whilst their claims for asylum are assessed.

There are 4 reasons why we should let them in:

First, because it is our obligation under international law. This is purely a formal reason, but international disgust at our present stance provides an added reason for adhering to our obligations.

Second, because they are human beings. We must treat them decently: for the sake of their humanity, and for the sake of our own humanity.   The way we are treating them diminishes us.

Third, because of the long-term problems for our society if we continue to treat them badly. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be. The events of 11 September demonstrate, with horrible clarity, just how small the world is. Indonesia, where millions seek early refuge, is our near neighbour. The refugees fleeing from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan are our neighbours. We are close to them all. We cannot ignore them by pretending that culture and geography create a safe distance. They do not. Nor does geography obscure our moral obligations.

If we imprison asylum seekers, they will suffer great physical and psychological harm; they will start their new lives in Australia with a legitimate sense of grievance; they will think Australia and Australians heartless. If that is the result, it is our fault. It is utterly predictable. If we imprison them, it stains our conscience and blights our future as a nation.

Finally, because it costs us so little. Suppose we allow them into the community after brief initial screening. And suppose (against all previous experience of new migrants) that not one of them found a job. And suppose we went so far as to give each of them a living allowance to enable them to live with dignity. That small exercise in compassion would cost each Australian six cents per week.

Six cents a week is a small price for a clear conscience.

Some of them would not be accepted ultimately as refugees. Of that group, some may not surrender themselves to the Department for deportation. If they manage to stay out of the Department’s way, it probably means that they are living law-abiding lives. The rest will be accepted as genuine refugees. We will have fulfilled our legal and humanitarian obligations to them, especially the children.

The alternative is to keep on doing what we are presently doing: ignoring humanitarian imperatives; ignoring international law; ignoring international scorn; and scarring a generation of genuine refugees whose claims to stay here are ultimately accepted. We should not leave out of the equation the devastating effect on these people of the way we treated them in their first few years. These people, who had the courage and wit to get themselves to Australia have already shown, by the fact of arrival, that they have courage and determination. They will be valuable additions to Australian Society. They are a part of our future. We should not break their spirit before we admit them.

* * * * * * * * *

On 19 April 1984, we adopted a new national anthem. The second verse includes the words:

For those who’ve come across the seas We’ve boundless plains to share

I think we meant it in 1984. Do we mean it now?





Julian Burnside



1              Asia: 8.4 million; Africa: 5.3 million; Europe: 5.6 million (UNHCR 2000)

2 Some months after this paper was presented, evidence was given to a Senate enquiry into the “Children Overboard” affair. The following appeared in the Melbourne Age on 18 April 2002:
” Taking photographs that could “humanise or personalise” asylum seekers was banned by former defence minister Peter Reith’s office, the Senate inquiry into children-overboard claims was told yesterday.

Defence officials said Mr Reith’s staff did not want to allow photographs to create sympathy for asylum seekers.

The director of defence communication strategies, Brian Humphreys, told the hearing that Mr Reith’s media adviser, Ross Hampton, ordered last September that military photographers not take pictures of asylum seekers. The military was given guidelines to ensure “no personalising or humanising images” were taken.

Later, defence media liaison director Tim Bloomfield described government restrictions preventing any military comment on last year’s asylum seekers operation as a form of censorship.”


[3]              Division 12A, which includes s.245F and other measures, was added by the Border Protection Legislation Amendment Act 1999, as from the date of assent (8 December 1999)