PAPUA New Guineans are pouring into islands in the Torres Strait, flouting immigration laws, running drugs, terrorising people and overwhelming local health and basic services. Community leaders, including the chairman of the federal government’s Torres Strait Regional Authority, John Kris, have accused the Department of Immigration of turning a blind eye to the worsening problem north of Cape York, with the political debate instead focusing attention on boat arrivals in the Indian Ocean.

“They are not policing the border . . . . it is difficult to know how many people are coming across,” Mr Kris told The Australian. “There has been too much focus put on the boat arrivals and not enough attention on the Torres Strait, where more people are moving into these waters.”

Some communities have recently taken matters into their own hands by “closing the borders” to visitors – some of whom they claim roam islands armed with machetes and who are either not eligible for or have overstayed free movement provisions extended to some villages in the Western Province of PNG. The Torres Strait Treaty, signed 30 years ago, allows traditional activities to continue between specified villages on both sides of the border.

But documents obtained by The Australian early last year showed that the government was already aware that thousands of PNG citizens were illegally crossing the border. The Torres Strait Island Regional Council, which represents 14 islands, says little has been done, with some communities having “in excess of 500 PNG nationals turn up” without warning, draining the local water supply. “Immigration turns a blind eye to the fact that ‘overstayers’ are on the island; their inaction in dealing with the problem makes a mockery of the treaty,” Mayor Fred Gela told a Senate inquiry. “Immigration must start to do their job.”

Mr Gela told the Senate that PNG nationals were stealing, running drugs and sly-grogging, and had even been suspected of abducting local women. The Senate inquiry has also heard warnings of biodiversity and health risks to Australia, with some figures suggesting one in five PNG villagers who cross the Torres Strait have tuberculosis.

There were 59,000 recorded movements between the two countries last financial year.

Queensland Liberal senator Sue Boyce, who sits on the inquiry committee, last week wrote to Kevin Rudd, saying the federal and state governments were ignoring the problem. “Ignoring these Australians and leaving them to their fate is not an option and, in fact, it would be an international disgrace if no action was taken to secure their safety and protection,” she wrote.

In its submission, the federal Department of Health said it was providing services to visitors on humanitarian grounds despite travel not being permitted for health purposes under the treaty.

SOURCE

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