40 Asylum seekers missing off Torres Strait

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: 43 West Papuans seek asylum

More than 40 asylum seekers are missing after fleeing the Indonesian province of Papua, bound for Australia. Coastwatch is searching the Torres Strait for the 25m boat. Four children are among the 43 people believed to be on board. The 25-metre traditional boat is believed to have left the port of Merauke, Papua, on Friday headed for Australia's Cape York peninsula.

Convenor of the Australia West Papua Association Louise Byrne says the group included some of Papua's leading independence advocates. She said they were forced to undertake the journey by boat because the usual means of escaping Papua – crossing the border into Papua New Guinea – had become increasingly difficult.

"The border has tightened up a lot in recent times," she said on ABC radio. Ms Byrne said sheer desperation had forced the group to flee Papua. "Although it hasn't been announced, I think the Indonesian Government has changed its policy and is now realising that ... autonomy isn't working and I think they're about to implement a military solution," she said.

Ms Byrne could not say whether she believed Australian authorities should prepare for an influx of asylum seekers from the region. Ms Byrne was told of the group's escape from Papua in a phone call last week. She said fears were growing for the safety of those on board the boat, which was now three days overdue.

"They're not anywhere, so I'm concerned for where they are and that's why the National Search and Rescue have started looking this morning," Ms Byrne said. "We've been spending a rather frantic weekend looking for them because it's not far across the Torres Strait," she said. "It should have taken them a maximum of 15, 16 hours."

The Australian immigration department says surveillance flights in the Torres Strait have failed to locate the boat. A department spokesman says Coastwatch surveillance flights in the Torres Strait region have been adjusted to search for the boat but it has not been sighted.

Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle has written to Foreign Minister Downer requesting that he make inquiries with the Indonesian Government to establish if they have intercepted the missing asylum seekers.

"I am concerned that the boat carrying West Papuan asylum seekers could have been intercepted by Indonesian authorities en route to Australia," said Senator Nettle. "If the Indonesians have intercepted this boat it would be a relief that they have not sunk at sea, but I am concerned about their fate at the hands of Indonesian authorities given recent arrests of West Papuan activists and ongoing human rights abuses.

Aboriginal communities in Cape York are being put on alert. Federal and Queensland Government authorities are monitoring the situation.