Something unprecedented and possibly highly significant happened last week in Australia, when the government resorted to military force to keep out 434 would-be refugees, nearly all of them from Afghanistan, along with some Pakistanis and Sri Lankans.

Something unprecedented and possibly highly significant happened last week in Australia, when the government resorted to military force to keep out 434 would-be refugees, nearly all of them from Afghanistan, along with some Pakistanis and Sri Lankans.

Would-be immigrants on the Tampa.

The story begins on August 24, when the 434 left western Indonesia aboard the Palapa 1, an unseaworthy wooden ferry that was supposed to land them illegally in Australia, making them eligible for asylum. But a day later, while still close to Indonesia, the ferry began to sink and sent out an alarm. The Norwegian freighter Tampa, one of the largest roll-on roll-off vessels in the world, replied to its emergency appeal and on August 26 rescued the passengers and four crew even as the ferry was actually breaking apart.

The Tampa then set sail for the closest port, in Indonesia. A few hours into the trip, however, a delegation of Afghans said to be acting in an "aggressive and highly excited manner," threatened the Tampa's tiny 27-man crew if the ship did not reverse course and take them to Australia. Fearful, the captain complied with their demands.

When the Australians realized the Tampa was coming their way on August 27, Prime Minister John Howard forbade it from entering the country's territory, saying that Australia cannot be seen "as a country of easy destination." The captain obeyed, stopping just nine kilometers outside Australian waters.

But two days later, citing health problems among the Afghans, he moved the Tampa into Australian waters, heading toward land. In response, saying he must "draw a line on what is increasingly becoming an uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals" Howard sent crack Australian troops to board the ship and prevent it from reaching land.

An impasse followed as the giant 44,000-ton ship loomed over a tiny Australian island. What to do with its passengers turned into a minor international crisis until, on August 31, New Zealand announced a willingness to take 150 of the asylum seekers and Nauru (a tiny, impoverished island state in the Pacific Ocean) accepted the remainder in return for an infusion of cold Australian cash. Pending the decision of an Australian court, this strange outcome resolved the issue.

The Tampa episode marks the first time in recent history that a Western government used military force to prevent a group of peoples at its doorstep from requesting asylum.

Predictably, the government's action was massively criticized by foreign leaders ("destroying its reputation"), international agencies ("unacceptable"), and excoriated by elite opinion in Australia, both media ("farcical") and academic ("we are heading in the direction of a pariah state").

Just as predictably, polls showed that a resounding 78 percent of Australians backed Howard's "resolve," and his party gained five percentage points in popularity. This broad support reflected two public worries.

The first is a sizable growth of illegal immigration, mostly of Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians. The 11 days before the Tampa's arrival saw more than 1,500 illegals landing in Australia on small boats, and reports were circulating of another 5,000 would-be immigrants readying to set sail from Indonesia. Many Australians felt under siege.

Second, recent police reports of Lebanese men gang-raping non-Muslim women specifically to humiliate them (one victim quoted her attacker, "You deserve it because you're an Australian") aroused anger. According to Agence France-Presse, "much of the support for the government stand was driven by anti-Muslim sentiment rather than anti-boatpeople attitudes."

A similar divergence of views is emerging throughout the West (most notably, in Austria), with the establishment basically welcoming nearly anyone knocking at the door while the population deeply resents the influx of peoples with alien customs and outlooks.

Howard's action in calling out the military to close his country's borders to illegal immigrants may have been a fluke. More likely, however, it has set a precedent that will be oft imitated as uncontrolled immigration becomes an ever-more central issue for Western societies. Four main factors are fueling this trend.

  • The growing disparity between the terrible conditions in so many failed states and the good life in the West (which includes such countries as Japan, Singapore, and Israel).
  • An increasing awareness by people in failed states about the West.
  • The declining costs of transportation from failed states to the West.
  • The West's favorable treatment of those who reach its territories, even if illegally.

Watch to see whether the "Howard solution" is a one-time eccentricity or the start of a trend. I'll bet on the latter.


Apr. 4, 2004 update: Two and a half years later, Raymond Bonner of the New York Times reviews the consequences of the above crisis. He reports that the 350 would-be refugees to Australia who ended up on the island of Nauru call their accommodations there "a big prison." In contrast, the smaller number who made it to New Zealand appear to be happier. John Howard's policy has worked, Bonner reports, in the sense that "the flood of illegal refugees into Australia has abated," though many Australians say the price has been too high and compare detention at Nauru with Guantánamo Bay.