Adrift and Unwanted A Norwegian ship saves 438 asylum seekers-and triggers an ugly diplomatic row over their fate

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A sailor since he was 15 and now on the verge of retirement, Arne Rinnan might have been excused for thinking he could negotiate any challenge the sea could toss up. But as the graying Norwegian skipper steered his red freighter, the Tampa, across the Indian Ocean en route to Singapore last week, he sailed into a storm to shake any captain's confidence.

A call from Australian rescue authorities alerted Rinnan to a sinking wooden ferry 140 km northwest of Christmas Island, a tiny, remote Australian territory 320 km south of Java. When the Tampa reached the doomed vessel at dusk on Aug. 26, the scene stunned the captain and his crew: waiting to clamber aboard the Tampa were 438 asylum seekers-men, women and children-believed to be from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Having found them in Indonesia's sea-rescue zone, Rinnan intended to take them to the nearest Indonesian port. But this plan alarmed his new passengers, five of whom confronted him and, according to Rinnan, demanded that he head for Christmas Island or "any western country." The skipper appeased them-and steered his ship into an international incident. "The situation is calm," Rinnan told Time from the Tampa at the end of a swirling week of diplomatic maneuvering involving three nations. "The refugee men have lifted their hunger strike and their morale and physical condition have improved."

As the Tampa powered for four hours through rough seas, Rinnan, 61, had no inkling that in Australia-that vast and prosperous island continent that hosted the 2000 Olympics with such charm-illegal immigrants, 4,000 of whom have arrived by boat this year, have become a white-hot political issue. Despite a line in the country's national anthem that declares, "For those who've come across the seas/ We've boundless plains to share," opinion polls indicate that most Australians are prepared to share only with legal migrants. Just days before the Tampa's rescue, the Federal Government announced it would build three more detention centers for illegal entrants. Prime Minister John Howard, determined that asylum seekers should cease to regard Australia as a "soft option," was about to draw a line-right in the path of the Tampa-and trigger a standoff in which issues of national sovereignty, international law and human decency would blur and collide.

Told that Australia would not accept his ship, Rinnan halted it 20 km from Christmas Island, outside Australian waters. There it stayed for more than two days as Australia, Norway and Indonesia bickered over responsibility for the passengers. Says a spokesman for immigration minister Philip Ruddock: "The Australian government is not about rewarding people who exert duress on the captains of ships." Meanwhile, a frustrated Rinnan surveyed from his bridge the mass of humanity on the deck below. The male asylum seekers had begun a hunger strike, and the captain believed many in the group-including two pregnant women-needed medical help. By early afternoon on Aug. 29, Rinnan had made up his mind: defying Australian orders, he began moving toward Christmas Island.

The Tampa was within 8 km of shore when it was intercepted by troops from Australia's Special Air Service regiment. At week's end, armed SAS members remained on board, with Rinnan still in nominal command. But negotiations between Australia and her neighbors had produced a breakthrough: Howard announced that, without ever setting foot on Australian soil, the refugees would be transferred to another boat and taken to New Zealand (which would accept 150 husbands, wives and children), while the remaining 288 men would begin a 6,000-km voyage to Nauru, one of the world's smallest nations. Rinnan says he and his crew are in good spirits: "The Australian troops are behaving and being polite."

Canberra argues that Christmas Island was ill-equipped to moor the bulky Tampa; Jakarta should have done more, since most of the refugee boats come via Indonesia. Jakarta bristles. "Matters might have worked out better," says Indonesia's ambassador to Australia, Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, "had friendly discussion been sought first."

Rinnan's Oslo-based colleagues at shipping line Wallenius Wilhelmsen scoff at any suggestion that he panicked in making a dash for shore. "Not Arne," a company spokesman says. "A calmer man has never sailed the seas." The crisis raises many old questions about refugees, the brutal regimes that create them, and the responsibilities of nations that have the resources to help them. But on the high seas, a new question will surface in every mariner's mind the next time their ship receives a distress signal: What am I getting myself into if I save these people?