Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Torres Strait looms as a new route for asylum seekers escaping PNG

By Matt Wordsworth



Off the far northern coast of Australia, another front line is opening up in the political battle over asylum seekers.

The plan to send all new arrivals to Papua New Guinea was supposed to the stop the boats, but there are growing concerns that it could simply provide a new route for people smugglers.
The Torres Strait at its northernmost point is only four kilometres from the mainland of PNG, and this sparsely populated frontier has been a well-known smuggling route for drugs, guns and people for years.
However, the remote and sparsely populated islands are understandably difficult to monitor. A checkpoint on Australia's northernmost island, Boigu, is the boat ramp. There are no scanners or sniffer dogs here.
Two federal government officials greet any arrivals, record names, and look over cargo for signs of pests and disease.
It's a casual affair because nearly all visitors here are from just across the water in PNG, about seven kilometres away.
Owing to centuries-old family links, the Australian government allows villagers from 13 settlements along the PNG coast free movement in the region, and they make the trip every week to bring their goods to market.
The Torres Strait Island Regional Council representative for Boigu Island, Dimas Toby, oversees the operation.
The markets are vital to the prosperity of families on both sides of the border, but the proximity of the two countries has become a concern given the Federal Government's recently announced "PNG solution".
"Mr Rudd made that proposal and the decision - having the processing and detention in Manus Island," Cr Toby said.
"Boigu and Saibai are sort of the doorway for internationals to come in. We've had [arrivals] in the past that came through here as individuals and a group."

'A concern it will become a backdoor into the country'

Most of the visitors to Boigu are perfectly legal, and across the region it is estimated there are about 50,000 crossings of people a year between PNG and Australia.
But with the only requirement for an international journey being a tinny and a drum of petrol local journalist Aaron Smith says there are widespread reservations about the PNG solution.
"A lot of the regional leaders up here are concerned," he said.
"We do have a pretty porous border up here. Just on one of the treaty villages on the island of Saibai, about four kilometres from the PNG mainland, that border has about 26,000 crossings a year to that one island.
"A significant percentage are not illegal immigrants. They're mostly PNG nationals, but there is a concern it will become a backdoor into the country."
Those fears were realised on Saturday when two Somalis were detained on Boigu Island. They were flown to Cairns and immigration officials will send them on to Manus Island in PNG for processing.
Just a day earlier, another two suspected asylum seekers were intercepted off nearby Saibai Island.
It takes the total number of irregular maritime arrivals in the Torres Strait so far this year to 10, which already matches last year's total. In 2011 there was just one. In 2010 there were none.
"There's not a racket going on as far as I've heard," Mr Smith said.
"It's more just opportunist people who are really keen to get out here and live in Australia."

Air, sea and land patrols monitor movements in the area

The crew aboard the Customs vessel, the Jardine River, is the front line of defence against illegal entry to Australia through the Torres Strait.
It is a big patch to cover for the two boats in service - almost 50,000 square kilometres.
Senior officer Gary Don is normally stationed in Cairns but spent three years serving on Thursday Island.
He says there are three other vessels like the Jardine River, 12-metre cruisers with a fly bridge, in use across the country - one in Western Australia, one in Darwin and one in Gove.
 On a patrol with ABC's 7.30, Customs stopped one international vessel – a yellow-hulled yacht.
Crew member Hannah Lockhard hailed the sailor on the radio while coxswain Leo Leoni stood on deck, notebook in hand, taking details of the boat.
The lone sailor on board, an elderly gentleman who emerged from below deck squinting in the sun, squawked a reply over his radio.
"They just talked to that guy on the radio," Mr Don said.
"He first pulled into Cairns a few days ago. He's now heading off to Darwin. It's a Belgium-registered vessel.
"His English language isn't that good but it's been cleared into Cairns so we don't have a great deal of interest. His details all check out."
According to the Customs department, there are just 13 staff in the entire Torres Strait with another six available at short notice in Cairns in what they call a flying squad.
There are two helicopters and two boats.

Concerns about Customs' resources in the region

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman does not believe it is a big enough contingent for the Far North.
"The idea that 13 officials are enough to police 270-odd islands and thousands of square kilometres of sea area is preposterous," he said.
"So Kevin Rudd, if he wants the PNG solution to work, needs to properly close the border and ensure only those people who are legit can get across."
Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare said there has not been a jump in irregular arrivals.
"I know that Premier Newman has been trying to scare everybody up here, let me give you the facts," Mr Clare said.
"The fact is, that last year 10 people crossed from PNG across the Torres Strait and 10 people have made that same journey this year.
"The difference now is that everybody that crosses the Torres Strait without a visa will get flown to Manus Island. No one will be processed here, no one will be settled here. That's the difference."
On Boigu Island, Dimas Toby is more concerned about what he says have been recent cutbacks at federal agencies servicing the region.
"We've experienced that over the past couple of years there's been cuts to customs on Thursday Island, cutbacks on fisheries," Cr Toby said.
"There's fewer patrols. If you are looking at the asylum seeker problem I think we really need to step up on security and give the Torres Strait region the assurance that we're safe."

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