It seems
the Commonwealth Government’s excision of islands in the Torres Strait from the
Australian migration zone is causing problems for the local
inhabitants.

Under the
Torres Strait Treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea, traditional and
local customs of movement have been safe-guarded, until
recently. The treaty
allows for traditional forms of movement between PNG and the Australian islands
for ceremonial purposes and for the maintenance of traditional fishing rights.
But now there’s a row brewing between Canberra and the Queensland Government
over health and education programs in the Strait.

Health
officials on Thursday Island are worried that a long-established program of
vaccination against tuberculosis is threatened because the requirements of border
control mean that visitors from islands outside the Australian migration zone
may technically be illegal immigrants and subject to
detention.

The TB
inoculation program requires people to have a series of shots. Some in the
program have stopped coming to Thursday Island part-way through the program.
Health officials are worried that a drug-resistant form of TB may now be
circulating in the Strait.

At the same
time, up to 20 children who have been adopted by Torres Strait islanders under
traditional law, which doesn’t require any paper work, are dropping out of
school because they too would be subject to detention if they tried to attend
school on Thursday Island.

Queensland health and education officials
are scheduled to meet with their counterparts from DIMIA next week, in an
attempt to resolve the impasse. But
Queensland officials are not hopeful of a speedy resolution. So far the attitude
from DIMIA officials in Canberra has been hard-line according to sources close to
the negotiations. Apparently, DIMIA’s response has been, “this is how it is” and
they’ve told Queensland they’ll have to work around it.

Article 16
of the Torres Strait Treaty requires the application of immigration and customs
procedures in such a way as to not hinder the free movement of people for the
purpose of “traditional” activities in and in the vicinity of the Protected
Zone, which includes Thursday Island.

DIMIA’s
hard-line attitude seems to indicate that access to health care and education are not
“traditional” enough. One Queensland official has expressed concern that if
avian bird flu should come into Australia through this region, the current
stand-off between Brisbane and Canberra could interfere with a rapid and
humanitarian response to treatment and control.

Hypothetically, the official
speculated, if an infected person approached Thursday Island for treatment,
would they be locked up, or sent back to PNG in a leaky boat?