Will Torres Strait become asylum backdoor to Australia

Will Torres Strait become asylum backdoor to Australia

Off the far north coast of Australia, another frontline is opening up in the political battle over asylum seekers.

The plan to send all new arrivals to Papua New Guinea was supposed to stop the boats, but there are growing concerns that instead it could simply provide a new route for people smugglers.The Torres Strait, off the northern tip of Queensland, is a strip of ocean where only four kilometres separates Australian territory from PNG.

In the last few days, two boats carrying asylum seekers have been apprehended while crossing the Torres Strait. The Queensland premier Campbell Newman claims the trickle could turn into a torrent, but the home affairs minister, Jason Clare says, the numbers don't bear that out.

7.30 sent reporter Matt Wordsworth to the Torres Strait islands to investigate.

The Torres Strait is a sea bound paradise. Turquoise water spills over coral reefs and sandy beaches. But, for years this sparsely populated frontier has also been a well known smuggling route for drugs, guns and people. This is what passes for a customs checkpoint on Australia's northern most island and the frontline with Papua New Guinea.

There are no scanners or sniffer dogs here. The checkpoint is the boat ramp where names are recorded and quarantine staff look over cargo for signs of pests and disease.

Due to centuries old family links, the Australian Government allows PNG villagers from 13 settlements along the coast free movement in the region and these villagers make the seven kilometre trip every week to bring their goods to market.

DIMAS TOBY, TORRES STRAIT ISLAND REGIONAL COUNCIL: The population is about 300 but throughout the year it fluctuates.

MATT WORDSWORTH: But it’s this proximity that has the local councillor, Dimas Toby, worried about the Federal Government's PNG solution.

DIMAS TOBY: Mr Rudd made that proposal and the decision of, you know, the processing and detention centre down at Manus Island. This is the doorway for internationals to come in. We've had in the past that came through individuals and in a group.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Each year it's estimated that there's about 50,000 crossings from Papua New Guinea to Australia.

So just how close is our nearest neighbour? Well, we're floating above the international border with Papua New Guinea. At about 3.5 kilometres that way is the mainland of PNG. Just over three kilometres that way is Boigu Island, and that's Australia. So all you need for this international journey is a tinny.

Local journalist Aaron Smith says it's not only Boigu Island that has reservations about the PNG solution.

AARON SMITH, TORRES NEWS: A lot of the regional leaders up here are concerned. You know, we have a pretty porous border up here. One of the treaty villages on the island is Saibai, about four Ks from the PNG mainland. That border has about 26,000 crossings a year just to that one island and a significant percentage of those are not legal immigrants, mostly PNG people. But there are concern that that will be a back door into the country.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Those fears were realised on Saturday when two Somalis were detained on Boigu Island. They were flown to Cairns where they will be sent to Manus Island. 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 to 10, already matching last year's total. In 2011 there were one, in 2010, there were none at all.

AARON SMITH: There's not a racquet going on, as far as I've heard, it's more just opportunist people that are really keen to get out here and live in Australia.

MATT WORDSWORTH: This Customs boat crew is the frontline of defence against illegal entry to Australia through the Torres Strait.

Gary Donn (phonetic) is a senior officer normally based in Cairns.

It's a big patch to cover for the two boats in service, about 50,000 square kilometres.

So how often would you do a patrol like this?

GARY DONN, SENIOR OFFICER: (Inaudible) ... at least once a week. We try to prefer to do overnight patrols because it's a more efficient way of using our staff. But they will ensure the vessel goes out somewhere at least every week.

MATT WORDSWORTH: And how many boats like this have you got?

GARY DONN: There's four of them in Australia. One in Western Australia, one in Darwin and one in Gove and there's one here at Thursday Island.

MATT WORDSWORTH: It doesn't take long to locate an international visitor.

GARY DONN: Matt, I just talked to that bloke on the radio. He first pulled into Cairns a few days ago, he's now heading off to Darwin, with a Belgium registered vessel, his English language isn't real good but it's been cleared in the Cairns, we don't have a great deal of more interest in him today.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So let him go?

GARY DONN: Yeah, the details he's given match with what we've got on our system so all's fine.


Customs has just 13 staff in the Torres Strait with another six available at short notice in Cairns. There are two helicopters and two boats. But it puts the Queensland Premier at loggerheads with Canberra.

CAMPBELL NEWMAN, QLD PREMIER: The idea that 13 officials are enough to police 270 odd islands and thousands of square kilometres of sea area is preposterous. So, Kevin Rudd, if he wants the PNG solution to work, he needs to essentially properly close the border and make sure that only people who are legit can get across.

JASON CLARE, HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER: I know Premier Newman has been trying to scare everybody up here. Let me give you the facts. The fact is that last year 10 people crossed from PNG to 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.

MATT WORDSWORTH: To make matters worse, Councillor Dimas Toby says there's also been cutbacks in recent years.

DIMAS TOBY: We've experienced that over the last couple of years that there has been cut back on customs from Thursday Island. There's been cutback on fisheries and...

MATT WORDSWORTH: Does that mean fewer people or fewer patrols?

DIMAS TOBY: There's fewer patrols, but I think if you're really looking to asylum seeker problem I think we really need to step up on security and give Torres Strait region the assurance that, you know, we're safe.


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