BORDER PROTECTION: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Why Australia needs naval, air force bases in Torres Strait
, April 29, 2006
Australia's border defences are failing to stop the increased smuggling of people and drugs across the Torres Strait - a failure that also poses a serious threat to Australia's quarantine regime.Revelations on a recent ABC program that people from Pakistan, Vietnam and other Asian countries have been smuggled into Australia across Torres Strait - following the flight of a boatload of West Papua refugees across Torrres Strait several weeks ago - highlight the urgent need for Australia to upgrade its border defences in the region.
Currently, the only border protection measure is a twice-daily Coastwatch flight over the area. The flights take place like clockwork, every day, and are easily avoided.
As a result, smuggling of people and drugs into Australia has become routine. On ABC television's Lateline
program, freelance reporter Ben Bohane interviewed smugglers, a PNG intelligence officer, West Papuan refugees, and a person awaiting the opportunity to be smuggled into Australia.Island-hopping
All told substantially the same story. Because the Australian maritime border virtually touches Papua New Guinea, it is very easy to island-hop to Australia. Torres Strait Islanders cross to Papua New Guinea regularly, and vice-versa.
One surprising aspect of the story were reports that Australian officials with responsibility for the area were corrupt. These claims were make by both people-smugglers and PNG defence intelligence personnel.
Personnel from the Department of Immigration were singled out for particular attention.
The Papua New Guinea intelligence officer claimed Australia and Indonesia were neglecting their borders with his country and therefore allowing people to be smuggled to the Australian mainland.
"The Australians are neglecting Papua New Guinea," the intelligence service officer told ABC television. "People are being smuggled through Indonesia into Australia. That border has become a blind spot for both the governments of Indonesia and Australia."
In an interview at the end of the Lateline
segment, anchorman Tony Jones asked Ben Bohane about the West Papuan refugees. Bohane said:
"We've got to remember there are nearly 10,000 refugees living along the PNG border and they are living on little more than sago and bananas. They've been largely forgotten about.
"A lot of them will claim that they are still being harassed, there's still cross-border raids by both the Indonesian military and harassment from PNG officials. But most of them are sort of still there. For those that do make the effort to try and come down, I think most of them have a genuine reason for doing so. They still feel under threat."
The porous border from Papua New Guinea is not only a concern with regard to illegal immigrants and drugs.
It also represents a serious threat to Australia's quarantine regime, and Australia's horticultural and agricultural industries.
Papua New Guinea is host to a number of exotic diseases which have been kept out of Australia.
There was an outbreak of Asian papaya fruit fly in the 1990s in far north Queensland, which was eradicated only after a multi-million dollar campaign and quarantine around the affected region. At the time, it was estimated that if the fruit fly had become established, it would have cost the tropical fruit industry over $100 million a year.
Only the establishment of effective defence, police and quarantine capabilities, based on Thursday Island, can prevent similar occurrences in future.