Asylum seekers arrive at Melville Island

PM - Tuesday, 4 November, 2003 18:10:00
Reporter: Nick Grimm

MARK COLVIN: But first, a new boatload of apparent asylum seekers has arrived off an Australian northern offshore island, surprising authorities who are now flying to Melville Island to determine the status of those on board. According to locals, a small Indonesian boat carrying up to 15 people arrived at Melville Island today.

Nick Grimm reports on the news about the boat's arrival.

NICK GRIMM: It was just before one o'clock on Melville Island this afternoon, when the arrival of the boat was discovered by locals.

Peter Brister is the island's Community Housing Manager.

PETER BRISTER: And I counted about a dozen people all up, but there could have been more, there could be less.

NICK GRIMM: And did they state what they wanted?

PETER BRISTER: No, they just asked apparently 'was this Australia?' and they wanted some water. They were very dry, out of water.

GIBSON FARMER: Well, we was all shocked to see those people there.

NICK GRIMM: Melville Island Community Management Board President, Gibson Farmer, was one of several local men who encountered those who'd arrived on board what appears to be an Indonesian fishing boat.

NICK GRIMM: He's revealed it had been beached on the sand.

GIBSON FARMER: And we seen four or five blokes on the beach.

NICK GRIMM: So, they'd actually gotten out of the boat and were walking on the beach?

GIBSON FARMER: Yeah, they were coming up, and then we told them not to come on the land, go back in the boat, and we told them no one's allowed to go near them.

NICK GRIMM: Okay. Now, how did they respond to those instructions?

GIBSON FARMER: Well, none them didn't understand English. None of them didn't understand English. They ask us if this place was Australia. This Australia? Then we said 'yeah, we're on the island just off Darwin.'

NICK GRIMM: So did the boat load of arrivals, did they say where they had come from?

GIBSON FARMER: Well, they mention Turkey, Turkey they were saying. And then we thought they were from Turkey. They said 'Turkey, Turkey.' Could be Afghanistan, we don't know where.

NICK GRIMM: What sort of condition were they in?

GIBSON FARMER: Some of them were really good. None of them were sick. I don't think there was any sick people in the boat. But once they jumped off we tell them to jump back in, and none of them spoke English so we told them 'jump in the boat'.

NICK GRIMM: But I guess you can confirm today that they did actually set foot on Melville Island?

GIBSON FARMER: Yeah, they did, they did. And then we told them to jump back in the boat, and I came up to the office and we notified Customs straight away, we notified the police and the Land Council, we notified Tiwi Land Council, and they said make sure the people don't go anywhere till police arrive and the Customs arrive.

NICK GRIMM: After towing the boat off the beach, locals left it anchored just off the coast. Peter Brister says an aircraft belonging to Australian Customs is now circling overhead.

PETER BRISTER: It's anchored about…

(to Bob) How far off the beach Bob?

(to Nick Grimm) Yeah, 500-600 metres off the front of Snake Bay.

NICK GRIMM: Okay. Why'd you do that? why'd you tow it back out?

PETER BRISTER: Oh, for quarantine reasons.

NICK GRIMM: You were concerned that there could be disease or anything like that on board the boat?

PETER BRISTER: Yep. You don't know what's there.

NICK GRIMM: Can you describe the boat for me?

PETER BRISTER: About 40 foot long, I reckon, timber, yeah, there's four Indonesian, the rest are… Turkey nationals.

NICK GRIMM: Turkish?

PETER BRISTER: Turkish, yep.

NICK GRIMM: Or that's what they've told you?

PETER BRISTER: That's what we've been told from the boys that have been out there, yeah.

NICK GRIMM: What sort of state is the boat in?

PETER BRISTER: It looks pretty good from what I've seen of it, you know. I got a couple of pictures of it a fair way out. But it's not low in the water or anything like that, you know.

But it's a nice big boat, big for an Indonesian boat, it's bigger than the ones in Darwin Harbour, I reckon, you know, the normal Indonesian fishing boats they usually intercept, you know.

NICK GRIMM: So you wouldn't think that it was in any danger of sinking or anything like that?

PETER BRISTER: I don't think so. Didn't look like it. Apparently the motor's broken down when it got here. But that's all I know. But it doesn't look like it's in any danger of sinking.

NICK GRIMM: What was the reaction from the local community there when the boat was spotted?

PETER BRISTER: Oh, everyone was sort of keep 'em offshore, but I think a few of them thought they were terrorists, just from talking to people, you get the impression they were a bit worried they might have been terrorists. But they're very conchy about keeping 'em out for bugs and so forth, you know.

NICK GRIMM: So, there was a certain amount of alarm that accompanied their arrival?

PETER BRISTER: Oh yeah. And whatsername, we get quite, often get visitors from quarantine and that here. There was one just recently, you know, doing a program, awareness and all that sort of thing, you know, keep your eye open for boats and that, because as you most probably see on the map, there's nothing above us till you basically hit Indonesia to the west or Papua new Guinea straight north.

NICK GRIMM: Anything else you can tell me about the boat?

PETER BRISTER: No, not really. No name or anything on it, you know. She's just a big timber boat. I'd say it was an ex-fishing boat because it's got a drum winch on the front.

NICK GRIMM: How long has it been since there's been an arrival like this on Melville Island?

PETER BRISTER: Nothing to my knowledge, you know. Nothing in the last seven years that I know about, not on our side at any rate.

NICK GRIMM: So this is quite a new one of the locals up there?

PETER BRISTER: Yeah, very.

MARK COLVIN: The Community Housing Manager on Melville Island, Peter Brister. He was speaking to Nick Grimm.

The ABC has been prevented tonight from getting a news crew into the area to report on the boat by the Customs Department, which has imposed a 10-mile air exclusion zone, which had prevented the ABC getting a helicopter in there.

The office of the Customs Minister Chris Ellison justified the decision citing operational reasons.


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