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In late August, it took only a few days for the Taliban to secure control of Kabul in the wake of the final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. The breakneck speed of the takeover was accompanied by images of mass terror, alongside a profound sense of betrayal. As in the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, the international airport quickly became the epicentre of scenes of chaos and collective panic, as thousands rushed onto the tarmac in desperate attempts to board the last planes out of the country. Queues stretched for kilometres outside the country’s only passport office. It is still too early to tell whether the Taliban’s promises of a more ‘inclusive’ government and amnesty for former collaborators of the Western forces will be met. What is certain is that Western governments owe them safe passage, though, from the announcements coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office in late August, it seems unlikely this will be properly honoured.

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The episode of the refugees on the MV Tampa raised two separate problems, one moral, the other legal. To see both issues in perspective, it is useful to recall the facts that precipitated this unlikely crisis.

The refugees, most of them claiming to be from Afghanistan, embarked on a boat in Indonesia and headed for Australia. It began to sink. The master of the Tampa, quite properly, rescued them. He was about to take them to Indonesia when some of them threatened to commit suicide if they were not taken to Australia. He considered that many were in need of urgent medical help. He sailed towards Christmas Island and radioed for help, but none was given. He was asked to turn away, but considered the risks to life too great. Thus it was that 450 refugees found themselves in Australian territorial waters.

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