Missing asylum seekers found off Cape York

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

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

Australia's coastwatch has found a missing boat which with more than 40 passengers after it had left Indonesia's Papua province, reportedly bound for Australia.

Initial reports say the vessel has been spotted off Cape York, three days after it was reported missing. The Australia West Papua Association (AWPA) says the boat was carrying people who left for security reasons as a campaign against Indonesian rule of the Melanesian province continues.

Any application for possible asylum can only be submitted to the Australian authorities if they reach the Australian mainland. Australia operates a detention centre in Nauru to process people intercepted at sea while trying to reach Australia illegally.

The AWPA said the group had been forced to flee Papua by boat because the usual way of leaving the province — by crossing the eastern border into Papua New Guinea — had been made more difficult by increased surveillance. "No one (has) come from West Papua in boats before like this, seeking political asylum," said a spokesperson for AWPA.

Fears for the safety of the asylum-seekers mounted over the weekend after the group failed to turn up on Australia's Cape York Peninsula after leaving Papua's Merauke port on Friday morning.

The group had reportedly been making the 250 kilometre journey across the Torres Strait in a 25-metre traditional boat.

"A vessel fitting the information reported was located by Coastwatch at about 2pm at Cape York," an immigration department spokeswoman told AFP.

Customs and government officials were on their way to meet the boat, she added.

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