“Isn’t it time we steered a different course?”
Five years on from the ‘Tampa Incident’ this was the question asked by the Refugee Action Collective and several hundred supporters on Saturday 26 August 2006. (For a full account of the Tampa incident and subsequent arrivals, including the infamous SIEVX, see David Marr & Marian Wilkinson, “Dark Victory”, Allen & Unwin, 2003. […] Protests and commemorations in previous years in Melbourne can be reviewed on this site: 2005; 2003 (in 2004 there was only a token action at Casselden Place, DIMIA headquarters in Melbourne); 2002.)
The plan called for a ‘human installation’, with 433 people (the number of asylum seekers rescued by the Tampa) making their way from a meeting point by the old Sandridge railway bridge — once the entry point for migrants arriving in Melbourne — on to the footbridge across the Yarra, where they would sit for five minutes, one minute for each year that has passed, before moving on to the ‘red steps’ at the southern end of the Sandridge Bridge (fortuitously the same colour as the Tampa), where there would be a welcome of the kind the Tampa refugees should have received but so shamefully did not. As it happened, the required number was easily passed – estimates were mostly around 500-600. Many came brightly dressed as requested, and the organisers had been able to obtain the use of the huge “Shadowland” banners made to commemorate the journeys of a number of refugees on their way to Australia (the travelling exhibition of which these banner are a part visited High Point shopping centre in Maribyrnong in November 2003, and the Gabriel Gallery in Footscray in September/October 2004 […]):
At the same time, the words ‘Let them Land … Let them Stay’ were displayed on long banners above the Sandridge Bridge itself:
(This photo was taken later in the day, when the banner holders had been joined by the placards.)
The procession then moved off along the south bank of the river towards the ‘red steps’ for the ceremony of welcome:
Here is a little of what he said:
May I start by welcoming on behalf of all of you those in the crowd who are refugees, and especially the ones who arrived here on Tampa. Five years ago today the Palapa sank, and  people risked drowning. The Tampa, a Norwegian ship, acting in the highest traditions of maritime law and history, rescued them, rescued them at the request of the Australian Government. But because a number of them were ill it was important to take them to shore, and the nearest port of call was Christmas Island, which is a part of Australia. The Australian Government refused to let the Tampa land. Instead of sending the medical help they promised, they sent the SAS. The SAS stormed the ship in what was almost certainly an act of piracy, and they held the Tampa hostage until on the third day of the hearing, on the Sunday, the government announced the Pacific Solution. John Howard announced on that day that the people rescued by Tampa would never be allowed to set foot in Australia. And let me say how personally delighted I am that so many of them now have. He also said that they would be taken to the island of Nauru, but that they would be treated with the decency for which Australia is famous. That is Howard’s dishonesty, for which he will be famous …
[Referring later to Philip Ruddock, who as Immigration Minister presided over the regime of mandatory detention and the rest, while still wearing an Amnesty badge]
Philip Ruddock is a disgrace to the office he now holds [Attorney-General], and John Howards is a disgrace to his office…
Julian Burnside was followed by the choir ‘Shaking the Tree’, but before introducing them, MC for the day Pamela Curr had a few words to say:
You know, we look here today, we realise that our numbers are not huge. But look around. Look beside you at the people you are standing with. You represent the heart of Australia, and you represent the breadth of Australia. Here today you’ve got people from the churches, people from the legal community, people from the unions, people from the left of the community, people from the right. We are Australians. And we are the most persistent, the most stubborn, group of dissidents that this country has ever seen. And we will persist, because we know that what has happened five years ago will keep happening unless we stand up [to] be counted…
As Julian Burnside indicated, there were many refugees present in the gathering, and one who would have been familiar to many refugee activists was Zabi Mazoori, who came up on stage to say a few words, including a ‘thank-you’ to all those who had worked to help him and other asylum seekers over the years:
After which Arnold Zable and Kavisha Mazzella took the stage, Arnold with the harrowing narrative of a survivor of the SIEVX, and Kavisha with the some of the rousing songs for which she is well known:
Proceedings concluded with a wrap-up by Karen Jones of Melbourne’s Refugee Action Committee, amongst other things regretfully acknowledging that there would almost certainly be occasion for another similar event on Tampa Day 2007. (And this being so, reminded those present that RAC-Vic meets every Tuesday at 6pm at Trades Hall [now very Monday from 6.30pm at the Australian Nurses Federation, 540 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne])
Media release from RAC-Vic, 25 August 2006:
REFUGEE ACTION COLLECTIVE MEDIA RELEASE
Friday, August 25, 2006
TAMPA 5th ANNIVERSARY RIVER SPECTACLE TO STEER A NEW COURSE IN REFUGEE POLICY
When: Midday, Saturday 26th August
Where: Sandridge bridge & Yarra footbridge, Melbourne CBD-Southbank
Song, dance, theatre…including a colourful procession along the Yarra involving hundreds of prominent and ordinary Australians, musicians, and refugees. The procession will feature giant flags, and banners from the beautiful Shadowland exhibition with sepia images of refugees.
A ‘human installation’ on the Yarra footbridge, symbolising and remembering the Tampa refugees. The procession will sit down and pause for five minutes to mark the five years since Tampa holding large letters making the words ‘REMEMBER TAMPA’
The Sandridge Bridge will be decorated with a 25 metre banner carrying the words ‘LET THEM LAND, LET THEM STAY’
An address at the ‘red stairs’ (Southbank end of the Sandridge bridge) by Julian Burnside QC. Performances by the Shaking the Tree choir, Arnold Zable, and Kavisha Mazzella
It’s time to steer a new course: opposition to mandatory detention, and to the offshore incarceration of refugees (commencing with the removal of the Tampa refugees to Nauru) has increased dramatically, yet the worst aspects of Australia’s brutal refugee regime remain in place.
Now is the time to demand an end to mandatory detention and full rights for all refugees. Let them land, let them stay!
Emma Larking, Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) said today:
“We now know the history and the humanity of the 433 asylum seekers rescued five years ago this Saturday by Arne Rinnan, captain of the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa. When Rinnan saved the lives of the people on board the foundering KM Palapa, however, his attempt to bring them to safety in Australia prompted a response from this country’s government more draconian than he could possibly have imagined. He reflects that, despite having seen ‘most of what there is to see’ in his profession,‘what I experienced on this trip [was] the worst. When we asked for food and medicine for the refugees, the Australians sent commando troops on board.’
“ The Howard Government had the looming federal election firmly in its sights. It seized the event as an opportunity to convince Australians the entire country was threatened by this arrival of desperate people fleeing violence in Afghanistan.
“ Attitudes to refugees have changed since 26 August, 2001. Many Australians, including Tampa Day supporter Alice Garner, have spent years corresponding with refugees incarcerated on Nauru. Even Liberal parliamentarians such as Senator Judith Troeth who once accepted John Howard’s ‘border protection’ rhetoric are now openly discomforted by everything it has entailed.
“ But while the recent withdrawal of the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 prevented the exclusion of all of mainland Australia from its own migration zone, the most abhorrent features of our refugee regime remain firmly entrenched.
“ Refugees who arrive in excised Australian territories continue to be incarcerated in offshore prisons. Other asylum seekers are detained indefinitely in mainland detention centres, or are forcibly deported. In documented cases, many have been tortured or killed after return to the countries they fled. Temporary protection visa holders are denied basic rights and the chance to rebuild their fractured lives with any sense of stability or security.
“ Last year’s ‘Georgiou’ reforms did not change the fundamentals of this regime. They expanded the Minister for Immigration’s discretionary power to assist particular refugees, but did nothing to alter the stark fact that – while corporations such as Global Solutions Ltd are profiting from the taxpayer funded multi-million dollar detention industry – refugees in Australia are victims of systematic, institutionalised cruelty.
“ This Saturday’s Tampa commemoration seeks to change all this. In calling on Australia to ‘steer a different course’, the groups and individuals involved are rejecting the contemporary politics of racism and fear. In calling for an end to mandatory detention and full rights for all refugees, we are invoking a brighter future founded on tolerance, compassion, and human solidarity.”
WHAT PROMINENT AUSTRALIANS SAY ABOUT THE TAMPA AND ITS LEGACY:
“My family were among the thousands who sought and received refuge in Australia in the 1930s, when fascism threatened Europe. How could I now turn my back on people fleeing more recent tyrannies?
“Australia has been enriched by generations of refugees (sometimes disguised as immigrants): Irish fleeing the potato famine, German Protestants escaping religious persecution, Greeks forced to leave their country because of civil war… The list is long.
“We have been enriched by these seekers of life and hope; we are diminished by our government’s deliberate and heartless detention, exclusion and expulsion of current asylum seekers. This cruelty and stupidity must stop.”
— Dr June Factor, historian, civil libertarian, past president of Friends of the ABC
“The Tampa must never be forgotten. Our commitment to a shared humanity was deeply scarred the day the Tampa was denied the right to complete an act of humanitarian assistance.
“ Men, women and children fleeing from desperate lives…turned away from the safety of Australia’s shores and [denied] due legal process to assess claims for asylum; this damaged the soul of generosity and fairness we once thought characterised who we are.
“ We all remember where we were that day; we all remember the shock and the shame. Despite the withdrawal of the latest piece of legislation, legislation which sought to deprive asylum seekers of human rights on our shores, this remains unfinished business.
“While sadly unreconciled with our own indigenous peoples, Australia is a vibrant and wealthy nation built on waves of immigration and while we should ensure the full force of the law in dealing with terrorists or people smugglers we must remain vigilant in defence of the rights of the victims.
“ Human rights are not divisible – Tampa never again.”
— Sharan Burrow, ACTU President
“It is great that Australians in Melbourne are commemorating the Tampa anniversary.
“I am sorry I am not able to join you for the event. Tampa day was a shameful day in our history…Unfortunately the attitudes displayed by the government in turning away the Tampa five years ago are still evident today. We saw them reflected in the latest migration legislation the government proposed that would have seen all asylum seekers sent to Nauru. When the Tampa incident happened thousands of compassionate Australians called on the government to accept our international obligations to asylum seekers and open our country and hearts to the Tampa asylum seekers. Now there are even more Australians who feel this way and that is how the government’s new migration legislation was defeated. Australians care and we are now all working to together to get our government to care also. The Greens stand beside you all in this struggle.”
— Senator Kerry Nettle, Refugees Spokesperson, Australian Greens
“I am a child of refugees who came to Australia in the 1930s…
“My reaction to Tampa was a gut sense of shame and anger… The shame and anger was increased when we sent troops to Iraq, and the government argued Saddam’s tyranny was so bad it needed to be forcibly overthrown. If this was the case why was it not so bad that we could not welcome those fleeing its persecution?”
— Professor Dennis Altman, Acting Head, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University
Australia’s response to the Tampa refugees was “horrendous”; “Five years later it is almost a symbol of an ongoing response from many within the community who will never stop agitating until we do things better.”
— Brigid Arthur, The Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project
“Researchers for Asylum Seekers opposes mandatory detention. It is inhumane, unethical, expensive and unnecessary. There are many healthier, cheaper and more efficient alternatives. Detaining asylum seekers is part of the culture of fear our society currently lives in…”
— Nikola Balvin, Researchers for Asylum Seekers
This year’s TAMPA commemoration was organised by Victoria’s Refugee Action Collective with the assistance and support of: * A Just Australia * Asylum Seekers Resource Centre * Lyn Allison, Senator & parliamentary leader, Australian Democrats * Professor Dennis Altman, Professor of Politics, Acting Head School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University * Bob Brown, Senator, Australian Greens * The Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project * Julian Burnside, QC * Sharan Burrow, ACTU President * John Butler, musician, The John Butler Trio * Tahir Cambis, documentary filmmaker & co-writer & co-director of ‘Anthem’ * Bishop Hilton Deakin, AM, Bishop of the Eastern Region of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne & Chairman of Caritas Australia * Barry & Avril Everingham, Barry Everingham is a Melbourne based author, journalist, and broadcaster * Dr June Factor, honorary senior research fellow at the Australia Centre, the University of Melbourne. Dr Factor is a writer, folklorist & public advocate for civil liberties and free speech. * Free West Papua * Friends of the Earth * Carrillo Gantner, Vice President, Myer Foundation * Alice Garner, actor, Actors for Refugees * Max Gillies, actor * Hazara Association * Peter Job, refugees spokesperson, Greens Victoria * Robin Laurie, artistic director of many major public performance projects, including Kan Yama Kan * Kavisha Mazzella, Melbourne based musician * Adam McConville, actor & musician, Actors for Refugees, The Disclosure Project * Viv Mehes, documentary photographer, & creator, with a group of temporary protection visa holders, of the Shadowland photographic and narrative exhibition * Kerrie Nettle, Senator & refugees spokesperson, Australian Greens * Father Peter Nordon, Associate Director, Jesuit Social Services * Anne Phelan, actor, Actors for Refugees * Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre Inc. * Researchers for Asylum Seekers * Cr Janet Rice, Mayor of Maribyrnong * The Shaking the Tree choir * Brian Walters, SC, Liberty Victoria * Arnold Zable, Melbourne author and president, Melbourne International PEN * Associate Professor Spencer Zifcak, La Trobe University & New Matilda Human Rights Campaign *