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Afghanistan to Aotearoa

Ezra Low - 07/10/05

September 2001 will go down in history as a testament to human resilience in the face of tyranny. In one appalling moment, the world watched in horror as America fell victim to one of the most vicious terrorist attacks in history. As the twin towers crumbled, the international community realised that terrorism and tyranny were not issues to be ignored simply because it appeared not to happen in their part of the world.

Australasia remembers that moment well. In late August 2001, 438 Afghani men, women and children left the shores of Indonesia in their bid to reach Australian shores on a rickety 20-metre fishing vessel. They were ethnic Hazaras, fleeing persecution from the Taliban regime in their native Afghanistan.


Trucks in convoy on a dusty road
Trucks in convoy on a dusty road
Photo Source: James Frankham, director. Pacific Solution.
Click here to view a larger version

What was supposed to be a 36-hour journey stretched to almost a month. Halfway across the Indian Ocean, the frail, overloaded boat began to flounder and break up.

It what seemed like a miracle, the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter appeared in the horizon. The captain, Arne Rinnan and his crew plucked them from mortal peril, starting a series of events that would make headlines around the world, even as the towers fell.

John Howard, the Australian premier refused entry for the asylum seekers, ignoring requests from Captain Rinnan to land them on Christmas Island. The bureaucratic stalemate lasted for days. Then New Zealand intervened – Prime Minister Helen Clark offering to accept 132 of the refugees for processing and resettlement in New Zealand.

In the flurry of debate surrounding them and their circumstances, those fortunate few were given a chance to start anew. They were aided by various government and non-governmental organisations, among them RMS Refugee Resettlement, a non-profit agency which coordinates resettlement efforts for refugees in New Zealand. The others were shipped off by the Australian government to the pacific island of Nauru as part of the Pacific Solution, a move condemned as “refugee warehousing” by some refugee workers.

RMS Refugee Resettlement helped those lucky few in their first, trepid steps in New Zealand society. Among them were 39 “unaccompanied minors”, young boys whose parents sacrificed a substantial sum of money to help them escape Afghanistan.

Refugees standing in the back of a truck
Refugees standing in the back of a truck
Photo Source: James Frankham, director. Pacific Solution.
Click here to view a larger version

Through intervention by the Immigration Service and help from RMS Refugee Resettlement, their families were brought over to New Zealand after two long years of waiting, as well as others from Nauru.

The story of the Tampa refugees was told in Pacific Solution: From Afghanistan to Aotearoa, a home-grown documentary produced by Dr Annie Goldson, an associate professor at the University of Auckland. It premiered in the DOCNZ Interntional Documentary Film Festival, New Zealand’s first international documentary film festival to critical acclaim. A tentative release for national television is scheduled for later this year.

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