Armed Border Force officers have inundated the Torres Strait, say locals, with gun carrying officers scrutinising people travelling between islands on ferries and checking passengers and itineraries of domestic flights at airports.
Since late last year the ABF has scaled up its activities in the region and but there has been criticism from Islanders that there is not enough focus on the parts of Australia’s northern border that are going unpatrolled and open to illegal activity.
Ferries travelling from Thursday Island south to the northern tip of Cape York now have an ABF presence at every departure, where two armed officers keep an eye on who embarks and disembarks, and armed ABF Officers seem to be more visible than ever before in the community of Thursday Island.
A passenger travelling on the ferry from Thursday Island to Cape York told NITV News: "They came through the boat once, it was a bit intimidating with the guns and uniforms."
The increased presence is also felt at the region's airport on Horn Island, and at times at the small runways on the remote outer islands.
One Horn Island resident told NITV News, "There has been a lot more Border Force officers on Horn Island for a while, and it makes me wonder if there is something going on."
Two new ABF Fast Response Boats have been in the region since early this year, but are yet to be put officially into commission, are dry-docked at Horn Island. The ABF has also put out new tenders for anti-fouling services in the area.
The dramatic increase in the ABF’s presence is seen as part of a wider militarisation of the ABF and more aggressive approach to borders since 2014 under current department head Michael Pezullo and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.
There are also concerns the decades old Torres Strait treaty that allows for limited movement across the border by islanders and PNG nationals for cultural reasons is also coming under scrutiny. There are between 20,000 and 50,000 movements between the PNG's Western Province and the Torres Strait each year under the treaty’s provisions.
Last month NITV News revealed a Papua New Guinean grandmother who travelled to the Torres Strait was seized and taken into detention by Australian Border Force officers after seeking life saving surgery on Thursday Island.
Grandmother Rapia Komonde was suffering acute appendicitis when she was taken by her husband Paiwe Komonde from their home in the PNG village of Sigabadaru to Saibai Island Medical Centre in The Torres Strait on February 18. Sigabadaru is one of a handful of PNG villages covered by the Torres Strait Treaty which allows free movement between the two countries.
On May 13 three Papua New Guinean (PNG) nationals had their dinghy confiscated by ABF officers after allegedly illegally fishing in Australian waters near the border with southern PNG, it is the third of such apprehension this year.
There is the constant stream of fishing boats, people seeking medical care, who may have communicable diseases like TB, the occasional asylum seeker and people smugglers, the last being six Chinese nationals arriving on Saibai last August, as well as criminal activity.
A Queensland Health worker told NITV News that ABF officers had started stopping and checking flights in and out of the islands.
"We were questioned when our plane arrived at Saibai who was travelling back to Thursday Island, asking to check the itinerary, which I've never seen before."
The ABF denied its increased presence in the Torres Strait was due to any “current operation or specific threat” a spokesperson told NITV News in a statement.
Torres Strait Regional Council Mayor Fred Gela criticised the ABF for not focussing resources such as the Fast Response Boats where they are needed on the border which remain open to illegal activity.
“The resources need to be where they are needed, not focussed on the inner islands, as we don't share an international border there, we share it up at Saibai, Boigu, Duaun and Ugar, also Mer is important to protect,” Cr Gela said.
Cr Gela is also critical of the large ABF Cape Class vessels that came into commission in late 2015, costing taxpayers $330 million each.
“The question that needs to be asked is since being commissioned three years ago, how many illegal fishing operations have they successfully intercepted in the Torres Strait, I have been told it is only five,” Cr Gela said.
An ABF Spokesperson declined to verify Cr Gela's statement, saying only: “Under Maritime Border Command (MBC), we use a range of ABF and Australian Defence Force assets in the Torres Strait, including to target illegal foreign fishing.”
“Illegal foreign fishing statistics are not broken down by type of response vessel.”
Cr Gela said the uncharted waters along the border around Warrior Reef and Deliverance Island are a popular access point for illegal activity in the region and that it was well known that Australian authorities do not send patrols there.
“As these areas are still not surveyed, tactfully manoeuvring through these waters is a problem and ABF nine out of 10 times, or 10 out of 10 times just don’t go in,” Cr Gela said.
A report by a Federal Government committee in 2010 and again in 2012 recommended surveying uncharted waters in the Torres Strait be made “a high priority.”
The Australian Hydrographical Office estimated it would cost only $7.2m for the survey work around Deliverance Island, but any of it has still yet to be done.
When asked if ABF vessels enter these waters, a spokesperson declined to answer, saying only, “The ABF, including Maritime Border Command, utilises an intelligence-led, risk based approach to protecting Australia’s borders. Intelligence assessment and aerial surveillance provide early threat identification and a cue for on-water response by available vessels.”
“Surveying in Torres Strait will continue to be progressed over a number of survey periods in the future.”
Cr Gela said the border needed to be surveyed and kept secure.
“One would think it is just common sense just spend the money and get the Hydrographical Department to survey these areas once and for all.”
Too much red tape holding up operations
Cr Gela was also critical of the red tape that he feels can slow down response time to illegal activity in the region.
“Even though I am sure the personnel are more than capable, I understand they cannot intercept an illegal fisher without authorisation from Canberra, which is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
“This is costing the tax payer millions of dollars and for what result?”
Cr Gela, who has been lobbying for a new multi-agency facility to be constructed on Saibai said he is confident the idea has support at both Federal and State levels, but that for them to publicly admit it may be seen as a failure of current operations on the border.
An ABF Spokesperson said: “The ABF maintains a strong presence in the Torres Strait and works closely with partner agencies including Queensland Police, Australian Federal Police and PNG authorities.”
“We already share facilities in the Torres Strait with other agencies, including on Saibai Island, which is used by the ABF as required.”
Cr Gela said: “If they support the a joint facility then they have essentially admitted what we have right now is not enough, it's a massive area to monitor in size and scale, so a joint facility would be useful for all those agencies working at the coalface.”