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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Norway aghast at Tampa affair
cargo ship Tampa
Australia has so far shunned Tampa's human cargo
By Andrew Glasse in Oslo

Norwegians are having difficulty understanding the Tampa affair. What would appear to be an obvious case of rescuing human beings from a sinking ship and putting them ashore in the nearest port has turned into a political storm making headlines across the world.

Norway is a seafaring nation. It has a 3,000-kilometre coastline, and weather and sea conditions are often difficult.

I don't know much about Australians, but all this has definitely made me feel that they are not very nice people

Oslo resident
Many are the stories of rescues where ships have gone to save the crew and passengers of other vessels needing emergency assistance. No questions are asked as to where the victims are from, and why they are where they are. Lives must be saved.

This is exactly the spirit in which 61-year-old Captain Arne Rinnan answered the call from the Australian coastguard requesting he sail and rescue the 460 asylum-seekers now on board his container ship.

The subsequent refusal by the Australian Government to accept these people has been met with amazement by people here in Norway.

Australia is regarded by Norwegians as being a young, English-speaking nation populated by friendly, outdoor-loving people who enjoy their beer, are known for straight talking, but have their hearts "in the right place". They are respected as keen sportsmen.

In other words, Australia has a popular image in Norway, something which the 3,000 Norwegian students studying there usually confirm when they are home on holiday.

Hate figure Howard

This has all been called into question by the actions and words of the Australian Premier, John Howard.

Until a few days ago, he was unknown to nearly everyone in Norway. Now, Norway's largest tabloid, Verdens Gang, pictures him, lips pouting, index finger pointing, shouting something or other, presumably in parliament in Canberra.

The accompanying article, headlined "A miss by the prime minister", compares the Tampa affair with Margaret Thatcher's Falklands expedition in the early 1980s.

Both prime ministers needed a dramatic victory to secure an election result at home, writes Verdens Gang. Mrs Thatcher sent marines against a fascist junta, while Mr Howard is sending a frigate against a few hundred refugees.

'Cultural collision'

This point of view strikes a chord with Norway's population. Australia appears cowardly, cynical and insular.

Many people I have spoken to fail to understand why Mr Howard's government cannot differentiate between Australia's domestic policy on illegal immigration, and the plight of the asylum seekers lying on the hot steel deck of the Tampa.

Some even say that there seems to be a cultural collision between Norway's humanitarian attitude, and the vote-seeking cynicism being demonstrated by Australian politicians.

One young lady said to me: "I don't know much about Australians, but all this has definitely made me feel that they are not very nice people."

The BBC's Michael Peschardt
"The Australian SAS continue to guard the asylum seekers"
Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock
"Australia has always been ready to provide humanitarian assistance"
The BBC's Kate Clark
explains why Afghans are going to such lengths to leave their country
See also:

31 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia defiant in refugee standoff
30 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia seeks help over boat people
13 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia condemns vigilantes
31 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia's migrant policy under fire
12 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Boost for anti-immigrant party
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