Dark Precedents: Matteo Salvini, the MV Tampa and Refugees

In August 2001, Australia’s dour Prime Minister John Howard demonstrated to the world what his country’s elite soldiers could do. Desperate, close to starvation and having been rescued at sea from the Palapa I in the Indian Ocean, refugees and asylum seekers on the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, were greeted by the “crack” troops of the Special Air Services.

A bitter, politicised standoff ensued.  The Norwegian vessel had initially made its way to the Indonesian port of Merak, but then turned towards the Australian territory of Christmas Island.  Howard, being the political animal he was, had to concoct a crisis to distract.  The politics of fear had a better convertibility rate than the politics of hope.

Australian authorities rebuked and threatened the container ship’s captain, claiming that if Rinnan refused to change course from entering Australia’s territorial sea, he would be liable to prosecution for people smuggling.  The vessel was refused docking at Christmas Island.  As was remarked a few years later by Mary Crock in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal, “The stand taken by Australia in August 2001 set a precedent that, if followed by other refugee receiving countries, could only worsen the already deplorable problems facing asylum seekers in the world today.”

And so it has transpired. Italy’s response to the migrant rescue ship, MV Aquarius, eerily evoked the Tampa and its captain’s plight.  The charity ship, carrying some…

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