Boat people stranded in Torres Strait were 'going to NZ'
April 4, 2009
A BOAT full of people stranded for four days in the Torres Strait now claiming asylum in Australia was heading for New Zealand before it ran aground.
The Age revealed yesterday a fishing boat containing 50 Sri Lankans was observed hitting Warrior Reef, north-east of Thursday Island, by an Australian Customs scouting plane on Saturday night but not rescued until Wednesday.
A Government source said yesterday customs officials could not rescue the people on the boat because it was in international waters and the asylum seekers claimed they were going to New Zealand, not Australia.
A spokesman for the New Zealand High Commission confirmed Australian officials had made it aware of the boat on Sunday.
Officials from the New Zealand High Commission then contacted the asylum seekers and warned them the dangers of the journey from the Torres Strait to New Zealand through treacherous coral reef. After the conversation with New Zealand officials, the asylum seekers split on where to go. The Australian Government source said that because those on the boat could not decide in which country to seek asylum, a jurisdictional problem arose as the boat remained in international waters.
Customs officials were finally forced to act on Wednesday morning when they were alerted to a storm bearing down on the Torres Strait. They informed the Sri Lankans about the situation, and all then decided to seek asylum in Australia.
The source also hit out at comments in yesterday's Age that customs officials were inexperienced and unsure of what to do, saying it was an “incredible situation”.
The source said the claims were likely to be a result of a “turf war” after the Rudd Government shifted Australian border protection operations from the Defence Force to the Australian Customs Service in December.