The Torres Strait region is arguably Australia’s most critical location for border protection; Geographical positioning, complex reef systems and international border proximity provide an ideal pathway for illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and biosecurity risk. The global pandemic has also highlighted the potential for introduced disease and cross-border transmission risk.
Border breaches can have an irreversible effect on local island communities’ ecosystems, cultural places and people. Communities within close proximity to the border regularly face ‘overstaying’ incidents, which causes additional downstream cost implications on Council services and infrastructure. Communities can be readily accessed by unregistered or unsolicited community visits, and intruders. Inadequate public lighting and lack of marine surveillance makes night-time access and vessel landings easily achievable, raising concerns for public safety.
- Formal bipartisan State and Federal commitment to ensure the increased border presence established due to the pandemic will exist well into the new year (2021).
- Investment in operational hubs, increasing serviceable reach, response times and the ability to provision vessels within the region; ultimately resulting local employment opportunities.
- Investment into marine infrastructure and vessel accessibility points to allow for more appropriate vessel classes and increase employment and industry opportunities, thus facilitating the retainment and growth of key skills within our region.
- Support for additional essential infrastructure and other solutions in Top Western Islands to ensure increased border movement during crisis periods does not have a downstream cost impact on Council.
COVID-19 Border Response:
- Council resolved to ban all travel of Papua New Guinea Nationals and Torres Strait Islanders under the Torres Strait Treaty and further resolved that no permits would be signed to allow trade or travel between the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea, until further notice, during Council's Ordinary Meeting on 18th February 2020.
- The Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT), who provides treaty liaison and oversight, then also moved to endorse the border movement ban by officially closing the international border in March 2020.
- An increased multi-agency presence of both assets and personnel has remained in place from April 2020.
Border Assets & Personnel:
- The ABF 2020 Strategy outlines a target of July 2020 to be 'a leader in the border protection community' by being operationally ready with; a. Digital CCTV in place, b. Torres Strait Patrol and Port, Harbour and Coastal boats available, and c. Border Force officers equipped with mobile technologies.
- The two Fast Response vessels, specifically appointed to this region have operational reach concerns, primarily for incidents within the proximity of the international border due to refuelling activities being restricted to Thursday Island. The two vessels are housed on Horn Is., whilst the crew is based on Thursday Is. and there is a reliance on a third party to launch vessels into the water; constraining operation of the vessels to ‘business hours’.
- Bay Class vessels and helicopter services are typically provisioned as alternatives, however, also lack the operational reach to cover our 42,000km2 ocean footprint. The Bay Class vessels have had an incredibly poor track record of success in this region.
- Extensive vacancies of key Border Force positions in several island communities have been attributed to the reduction of employee entitlements such as rent assistance and remote area allowances.
- Concerns have been raised regarding the derelict state of several of the Border Force office facilities within the Torres Strait Regional Local Government Area.
Torres Strait border & marine zones:
The Torres Strait Treaty is between Australia and Papua New Guinea. It concerns matters of sovereignty and maritime boundaries in the area known as the Torres Strait. The Treaty was signed in December 1978 and became active in February 1985. It defines the border between Australia and Papua New Guinea and provides a framework for the management of the common border area.
Both Australia and Papua New Guinea have liaison officers, based on Thursday Island and Daru, who consult regularly on the implementation of the Treaty at the local level. Torres Strait Island Regional Council Officers administer treaty permits in each of the 14 Australian treaty communities being Badu, Boigu, Poruma, Erub, Dauan, Kubin, St Pauls, Mabuiag, Mer, Saibai, Ugar, Warraber, Iama and Masig.