By Corey Bousen, Editor of Torres News (Pictures by Damian Baker)







The Howard government’s efforts to dehumanise the
issue of “boat people” were seen to their full effect yesterday when 43
West Papuan asylum seekers fleeing from Indonesian oppression were
quickly rounded up by Australian authorities hell-bent on preventing
the media from covering their arrival on remote Cape York after five
days at sea.

After the West Papuans were spotted by authorities, a
32 km “no fly-zone” was immediately established surrounding the region
where the refugees landed. Fortunately, as our helicopter pilot had
checked special aviation notices along with the weather earlier in the
day, we were able to twice fly over the refugees and their boat while
taking photos and then land because we didn’t know about the newly
enacted restrictions. Our pilot says he would never have flown us
down to the asylum seekers’ landing site had he known about the
restrictions.

While I attracted the attention of two police heading towards our helicopter, Torres News
photojournalist Damian Baker made a covert dash up the beach, but was
prevented from approaching the refugees by a third police officer. The
Queensland police officers, who were also from our home base of
Thursday Island, about 200km north of the landing site, wouldn’t say
much, but were quick to pass the buck to Australian Customs as the
“lead agency” preventing us from speaking to the refugees.

We
asked the police what they would do if we approached the refugees, who
were about 50 metres away. After some consideration, we were told we
would be arrested. When pressed on what charge, after some further
consideration we were informed that it would be for “failing to
following the directions of a police officer.”

After secreting
his camera’s primary memory card in our helicopter, Baker said he was
going to make a dash towards the refugees. I asked him not to do that
because I didn’t want to face subsequent legal bills that could prove
onerous for a weekly newspaper of our modest size.


We can report, however, that the Papuan refugees all appeared to be in
good health after their five-day ordeal: they were all able to get up
and move away from the view of our camera after being instructed to do
so by the Quarantine and Customs officials keeping a close eye on them.

We’re
told that the asylum seekers’ landing site about 30km north of Weipa
was exactly where they were planning to come ashore. This was a great
job of seamanship and navigation, given the antiquated state of their
outrigger and the tricky weather conditions they faced.

As an
aside, during our trip down to the landing site we also spotted an
illegal Indonesian fishing boat 56 kilometres south of Thursday Island,
the crew of which was obviously just heading back out to sea after
camping out on the mainland. So while the authorities were able to
quickly locate and detain 43 asylum seekers, they didn’t appear to be
too concerned about the illegal fisherman who, I must say, were
obviously enjoying their time in Australia given their big smiles and
enthusiastic waves at our helicopter. We used our chopper’s radio to
immediately report our sighting of the Indonesian fishing boat to our
friends at Customs.

Thanks to the Cairns Post for paying
for our interesting helicopter ride and a double, one-fingered salute
to the Commonwealth Government and its bureaucratic minions who were
unable to prevent us from getting the pics of the asylum seekers and
putting human faces to the plight of these refugees fleeing Indonesian
repression.

CRIKEY: Corey Bousen and Damien Baker’s report for Torres News is online here.