Washington International Law Journal


Irene Khan


The Tampa case does not stand in isolation. It is part of a wider pattern of restrictive asylum policies. To fully understand the significance of the Tampa case, one should go back more than two decades to the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people. Then, as now, boatloads of asylum seekers were pushed away, and refugees were detained on small islands, including, for example, Galang Island in Indonesia. Then, as now, many asylum seekers drowned as their calls of distress went unnoticed or unheeded. In response to this exodus, asylum, as a permanent solution to refugee problems, was diminished with the crafting of the notion of temporary refuge--an initiative led by Australia with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ("UNHCR"). The practical problem of what to do with Vietnamese refugees was solved, not through legal obligations, but through a political compromise, which provided that refugees would be resettled after a temporary stay in Australia, primarily to Australia, Canada, and the United States. Then, as now, refugees were portrayed by states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ("ASEAN") as a threat to security and sovereignty. But then, unlike now, there was a greater political will to find protection and solutions for refugees. In the case of the Tampa, the Australian Government has portrayed the asylum seekers as a threat to Australian society and Australian values, a perspective which received an unexpected boost after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Australian Defense Minister Peter Reith was reported as saying that the government had to be allowed to prevent entry by boat, because "[o]therwise it can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities." These claims, however, are without foundation. In fact, the Director-General of Australian Security Intelligence Organization ("ASIO"), Dennis Richardson, recently reported to the Australian Parliament that not one asylum seeker of the 6000 screened in the last two and a half years has been rejected on security grounds.

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