On 26 August 2001 a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, rescued 433 people from aboard the stranded boat, KM Palapa 1, in the Indian Ocean. The Palapa had been at sea for three days, having set out from Java in an attempt to reach Christmas Island where passengers were intending to lodge claims for asylum. Australian authorities had sent out the call for the boat to be rescued.
The Tampa was given leave by Indonesian authorities to disembark the rescued passengers at the port of Merak, but due to intense requests by a number of the asylum seekers and subsequent concern for the safety of those onboard, the Tampa captain, Arne Rinnan, opted to sail for Christmas Island.
The refusal of the then Coalition government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, to allow the Tampa to disembark the asylum seekers on Christmas Island, and the subsequent boarding of the vessel by Australian SAS forces and ultimate removal of most of the asylum seekers to a hurriedly established offshore detention centre on Nauru, represents a significant moment in the history of Australian asylum policy, political debate and migration law.
The ‘Tampa affair’, as it has become known, helped to ensure that the deterrence of asylum seekers became a leading issue in the 2001 Australian federal election campaign (and in later elections), and contributed to the rationale for the system of offshore processing and the policy of turning back boats that have developed since. The ‘Tampa affair’ was a product, however, of an already restrictive and politicised asylum policy. As noted by researchers such as Peter Mares and James Jupp, the Australian government’s response to the vessel was informed by an increase in asylum seekers arriving by boat at that time (and the negative public perception of this issue), and challenges to the capacity and management of immigration detention centres onshore.
UNHCR granted the Nansen Refugee Award to the captain, crew and owner of the Tampa, who "demonstrated personal courage and a unique degree of commitment to refugee protection".