The committee looked at local policing in the Torres Strait in chapter 7
and noted Police Commissioner Atkinson's observation that although most of the
issues in the region are similar to those confronting the police throughout
Australia, border security is 'particularly unique' to the Torres Strait.
In this chapter, the committee examines from a national security perspective how
Australia protects its border in the Torres Strait. It is interested in organised
groups or well-resourced individuals who attempt to circumvent Australia's
border control measures in the region and test Australia's enforcement
capabilities. The committee's focus is on criminal activity such as the
importation of illicit drugs, people smuggling, illegal immigration, and
illegal fishing on a larger commercial scale. It looks at how Australia manages
these security concerns. The committee is also interested in social, economic,
demographic or environmental factors in the region that are likely to affect border
management and Australia's broader national security concerns. In this regard,
the committee looks at population growth and settlement patterns in Western
Province, competition for marine resources in the strait and climate change.
Main security risks
In the previous chapters, the committee discussed a number of matters
that indicate that there are vulnerabilities in Australia's border control in
the Torres Strait. It referred to a number of PNG nationals gaining
unauthorised entry onto islands in the strait or staying beyond their allocated
time in order to gain access to health or other services, for social or
sporting gatherings or to poach or fish illegally. Although these breaches of
border security do not pose a significant threat to Australia's national
security, they do indicate that there is a risk that more organised groups may
take advantage of and exploit any weaknesses or lapses in border control.
According to the Attorney-General's Department, the main maritime
security risks to Australia are:
- illegal exploitation of natural resources
- illegal activity in protected areas
- unauthorised maritime arrivals
- prohibited imports and exports
- maritime terrorism
- maritime pollution
compromise to biosecurity, and
piracy, robbery and violence at sea.
The committee has already dealt with a number of these matters
(unauthorised arrivals, overstayers, illegal fishing and poaching of natural
resources, quarantine and biosecurity). It now considers those security risks that
are of most concern to Australia's national security and border enforcement
agencies in the region. Firstly, from a border security perspective, the
committee deals with the movement of traditional inhabitants.
Movement of traditional inhabitants
In its submission, Customs stated that there are over 59,000 traditional
movements (arrivals and departures) recorded each year in the Torres Strait.
According to Customs, while Saibai and Boigu are the most popular crossing
points for traditional movements, the whole region is of interest to the agency
because of its proximity to PNG and the ability of travellers to move through
The committee has discussed the screening process that takes place on
the islands for the arrival and departure of traditional inhabitants and noted
the concerns by members of local communities that some people slip through
undetected and remain in the region either as illegal entrants or overstayers.
Assistant Commissioner Kevin Zuccato, AFP, was of the view that the unrestricted
way in which people can travel down through Indonesia and the strait creates a
significant risk of transnational crime within the region.
He recalled that the federal police have had occasions in the past where people
leave Australia through that area, to evade scrutiny by Immigration and
The AFP submitted that the recent PNG/Australia Transnational Crime Conference
'highlighted difficulties with the enforcement of Immigration law'. It stated:
...there are obvious issues pursuing crime groups and individuals
across the PNG/Australian maritime border as a result of the freedom of
movement provisions contained within the Torres Strait Treaty (traditional
The difficulties for border enforcement agencies created by the high
volume of people moving across the border under the free movement provisions are
further complicated by the unique operating environment of the region. This
includes its remoteness, disbursed nature of settlement, lack of infrastructure
and proximity to PNG. Indeed, this distant region of shallow sea, uninhabited
cays and sparsely populated islands serves as a potential haven for would-be poachers
Illegal fishing on a commercial
The committee has considered illegal fishing in the Torres Strait from a
conservation and biosecurity perspective. The activity of foreign fishers in
the region is also a border security issue. Between 2000 and 2006, the
Australian Government became increasingly concerned about the number of illegal
foreign fishers in Australia's northern waters. In 2005, during a debate on legislation
designed to strengthen Australia's ability to manage foreign fishers found
operating illegally in Australia, the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries
and Forestry highlighted the extent of the problem. He noted that illegal
fishers were 'expanding their operations' and 'venturing further east towards
and within the Torres Strait Protected Zone'. He stated:
It is important to both Australia and PNG that a strong
stance is taken against the illegal foreign fishers that pillage the natural
resources of the Torres Strait.
Although the number of illegal fishers in the Torres Strait has declined
in recent years, illegal fishing remains a significant maritime security risk to
Drug and gun running
In its submission, the TSIRC referred to the ease with which sly grog
and drugs and other contraband are carried across the border and into local
During the committee's visit to Saibai, local leaders gave similar accounts of
drugs passing through the strait. They referred to incidents of vandalism and trade
in illicit drugs, such as marijuana, and asked for the border to be treated as
any other international border. Commissioner Atkinson, Queensland Police, noted
that drug trafficking had been an issue in the region for some years and that PNG
has the ideal climate to produce cannabis. Consistent with this observation, Assistant
Commissioner Zuccato informed the committee that the AFP's main focus in
respect of PNG is trafficking dangerous drugs, including cannabis. In December
2009, he informed the committee that within the past 24 months, 26 individuals
had been arrested for trafficking some form of narcotics. One of the most
recent incidents involved 18½ kilograms of cannabis seized in PNG which led to
several people being charged with conspiracy to import 500 kilograms of
The AFP also looks at drug-related property crime which aims at obtaining
commodities to exchange for narcotics.
Ms Roxanne Kelly, Customs, was of the view that while there is criminal
behaviour in the region, some of the reporting 'exaggerates the activities'.
When we look at the significant risks and the operations that
we have undertaken in the last 12 months to two years, one of the significant
issues is the movement of cannabis. When you start to look...that is also
influenced by the actual market that is available there. We understand why
cannabis is probably a popular drug, whereas other powdered forms of drugs are
probably far too expensive. But I suppose there have been issues around it
being a transit point from where people can move drugs on to the mainland.
With regard to gun running, Assistant Commissioner Atkinson did not
consider the exchange of drugs for firearms as 'in reality an issue'.
Similarly, Assistant Commissioner Zuccato supported other government agencies
in their view that there had not been a significant movement of firearms and
ammunition to and from PNG, 'certainly not in the last little while'. Furthermore,
he noted that one program conducted in relation to firearms and ammunition had 'since
ceased, given the lack of apparent movement'.
Customs and Border Protection is responsible for leading and
coordinating the efforts of all agencies to 'disrupt maritime people smuggling
Assistant Commissioner Zuccato informed the committee that the AFP, which looks
at some people-smuggling issues and also trafficking in people within the
region, had not seen a lot of human trafficking through PNG.
Even so, he noted that while he was in the Torres Strait, Customs officers had
raised the issue, particularly with regard to the growing presence of the
Chinese community and the potential to establish routes for trafficking human
beings through PNG and then down into Australia. He was unsure about the likely
success of such activities, 'given that there are other ways through which they
can bring in particular women to Australia'. He said:
I do not know whether the return on investment would be
enough to explore that. Certainly it is something which was brought to my
attention when I was there.
Clearly, those engaged in criminal activity, as with any business
venture, consider the likely gains from an enterprise before starting up. For
would-be criminals, the likelihood of being caught operating or engaged in
illegal activities is a major consideration.
There are a number of factors that provide an ideal environment for
organised crime to flourish, notably the opportunity to move about a region
with ease, and to operate undetected or unreported. In this regard, the
committee has noted the remoteness of the Torres Strait area, the lack of a
police presence in the outer islands, and the free movement provisions of the Treaty,
which allow a large number of people to cross the border without any rigorous
screening process. Overall, however, while there are some factors that would entice
criminals to the region, there are others that keep them at bay. Ms Kelly
explained that from a business point of view, the logistics of moving illegal
goods or products through the various islands to the mainland is 'pretty
unviable'. She suggested:
...sometimes you just have to look at the business side of it
and why people are involved in some of that activity—it is to make money. Part
of our risk assessment is asking, ‘Is it a viable option?’ For some of those
commodities it really is not.
In addition, the tendency for Islanders, who are 'extremely proud
people', to report 'outsiders who should not be there' assists border
protection agencies to monitor cross-border movements.
This level of community scrutiny is another disincentive for budding criminals.
Although at the moment, criminal activity such as drug and gun running
and people trafficking may not be sufficiently profitable to attract large-scale
criminal activity, the potential exists. Thus, one of the major aims in border
security is to ensure that the gains from breaching border security do not outweigh
the costs. The committee now examines the range of measures that Australia
takes to secure its borders in the Torres Strait.
Securing Australia's border in the Torres Strait
Recording or registering people entering and leaving Australia is an
important element of effective border security in the Torres Strait, especially
in light of the free movement of traditional inhabitants. Equally important is
knowing, and being able to verify, the identity of people entering, passing
through and staying in the region. On a number of occasions, the committee has
noted the shortcomings in the screening and recording processes of PNG
nationals visiting the Torres Strait.
Data and record keeping
DIAC acknowledged that accurate reporting, which provides a clear
picture of people movements and goings-on, is needed to address the complex
issues of border management in the Torres Strait. It conceded that past data
collection of such activity may not have been as robust as it could have been. According
to the department, however, it had recently made substantial progress in improving
the quality of the data collected. Mr Allen informed the committee that the new
...make it possible to identify more accurately in future the
number of individuals making traditional visits and the reason for these
visits...Better data, we hope, will help to dispel some of the misconceptions
that exist in regard to the reasons for travel and the number of overstays in the
The committee recognises the need for improved data collection on people
movement in the Torres Strait and supports DIAC's endeavours to address this
problem. It is too early to determine whether the new system is going to be
sufficiently sound to meet the challenges posed by the movement of traditional
inhabitants through the straits. With this in mind, the committee is firmly of
the view that DIAC should evaluate regularly its improved method of obtaining
statistics on people movement in the Torres Strait. Furthermore, the committee
believes that, as part of this evaluation, DIAC should endeavour to reconcile
its statistics with local perceptions of illegal arrivals and overstayers to determine
whether there are anomalies and, if so, to use their data to explain the discrepancies.
In chapter 7, the committee touched briefly on the lack of formal travel
documentation required for traditional visitors and the difficulties that this
creates for law enforcement agencies in the Torres Strait. For example,
traditional inhabitants often use a list with names but no other detail as the
primary document for allowing cross-border movement.
This informal and inexact method of checking who is entering and staying in
Australia also has implications for border security.
A number of border protection agencies commented on the importance of
improving the system so that they would be able to identify effectively who is
a genuine traditional inhabitant.
For example, Ms Marion Grant, Customs, advised the committee that a more
rigorous identification of people moving between Australia and PNG would make
the work of Customs and Border Protection easier.
The AFP also called for a more reliable identification system to assist them in
their work. In its view, the current Treaty visitor pass system is 'easily
Assistant Commissioner Zuccato explained:
...it would be of extreme benefit to us for there to be some
form of document of identity, including a photograph, fingerprints or whatever,
so that we are aware of who is coming into and out of Australia.
Both the AFP and the PNG Transnational Crime Unit (TCU) have recommended
strongly that photo identification and biographical details be required for
traditional visitors when travelling across the border.
According to the AFP:
This issue is an ongoing concern to the AFP and other law
enforcement agencies as 'traditional inhabitants' in the treaty zone have
limited access to adequate identification documentation and the current process
may prove attractive to those with criminal intent.
The 2009 Transnational Crime Conference (TNCC), involving delegates from
Customs, AFP, Queensland Police, Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and PNG
Customs, unanimously endorsed the need for better methods of identification.
Mr Michael Pezzullo, Chief Operating Officer, Customs, informed a 2009
Defence Conference that Australia was 'increasingly using biometrics'. He
The facial recognition technology used in Smartgate has
enabled the immigration clearance process to be automated for travellers who
represent a low risk from an immigration perspective, producing greater
efficiency and an improved traveller experience.
In this regard, Police Commissioner Atkinson, commented on the potential
capability that technology—biometrics and facial-recognition—may offer in the
While there is overwhelming support for improving the means of
identifying travellers in the Torres Strait, the process of introducing such a
system is still in the early stages. As a standing member of the
Interdepartmental Committee on the Torres Strait Treaty, the AFP informed the
committee that, with its full support, Customs had raised the matter of photo
identification. According to Ms Kelly, Customs has also had discussions with DIAC,
the AFP and DFAT on photographic identification and that the matter was under
She acknowledged, however, that there were difficulties implementing an
improved system because of issues around changes to the Treaty. She said:
People understand some of the difficulties associated with
that. I think that is the response we have received. It has been noted...Not too
hard. It is just...that negotiations around any change to the treaty will take
Customs wanted to make clear that its comments were made in the context
of achieving a better system to identify travellers for their risk assessment
The Queensland Government also suggested that 'a formal identification method
for PNG nationals traversing Australian waters' was an issue that required 'further
consideration in the context of treaty governance arrangements'.
In this regard, Police Commissioner Atkinson understood that changes to the
identification system would be a federal government responsibility because it
involved people coming from one country to another.
Ms Grant noted further that the matter of an improved identification system would
be a DFAT responsibility.
Mr Young informed the committee, however, that this matter was not
really something that he thought DFAT could comment on. In his view, it would
be the agencies that have to implement and manage the system that could provide
'a guide as to how practical it is to do such a thing'.
He explained that DFAT would not be implementing it, but as the lead agency on
the Treaty, it would chair any meeting that decided to introduce such an
Although he acknowledged that there would be widespread acceptance of such a
system among the Treaty communities, he identified some of the practical implementation
It is across a border and into another country. It is also
people who largely do not have identity papers. They have different spellings
of names on each occasion they visit Australia. There are a whole range of
issues that the agencies that have to implement this have to look at first. I
think that broadly, in principle, the communities would be happy to do it, but
whether it is actually possible, again, is something for other agencies to
decide...We are open to the discussion. It is an ongoing discussion. It has been raised
at meetings over years.
The committee understands that a number of key agencies have called for
improved methods of identification with regard to the free movement of
traditional inhabitants across the Torres Strait border and that Australia is
increasingly using biometrics at other arrival ports. It understands that the
spirit of the Treaty requires that any measures to improve the identification
process should not impose unfair restrictions on traditional inhabitants
seeking to visit the region to undertake traditional activities. The committee
believes, however, that modern technology offers an opportunity to introduce
better methods of monitoring and identifying people travelling in the Torres
Strait region and its use should be explored.
Thus, the committee notes that while most government border protection
agencies support strongly an improved system of identification, they, including
agencies from PNG, have not come together to solve the practical difficulties
of implementing such a system. Clearly, a number of Australian agencies are
looking to DFAT to provide the leadership and drive necessary to move the
proposal beyond the discussion stage.
The committee recommends that DFAT assume the leadership role in
exploring ways with relevant border control agencies to make better use of
modern technologies to identify travellers visiting the Torres Strait. The aim
would be to implement as soon as practicable an improved means of
identification for people crossing the border in the Torres Strait that would
be in keeping with the spirit of the Treaty.
In the chapters on law and order and biosecurity, the committee highlighted
the critical role of local communities in reporting inappropriate or
unauthorised activity such as poaching, overstaying a visit, disorderliness and
petty crime. This important function as intelligence gatherers may also have a critical
role in exposing organised illegal activity that may be happening in their region.
Local knowledge—Torres Strait
To some extent, border protection agencies in the region are aware of
the contribution that local people can make to their understanding of unusual
goings-on in the region and look to them as an important source of vital
information on irregular or suspicious activities. For example, Customs runs a
community participation program where officers visit the islands as often as they
can, talk to communities and promote the work of the agency. Mr Kerlin noted
that they endeavour to visit all the islands as often as they can—once or twice
a year. With regard to Saibai, where Customs has an officer, a patrol tries to
visit the island at least once a month for two to three days. Mr Kerlin
explained that is how the agency develops the information flow that leads to valuable
The committee has noted that as respected members of their communities, reservists
in C Company, 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment,
make a valuable contribution to the intelligence network that operates in the
Torres Strait. They report unusual activity in their localities and help out
researchers with their tasks. In a more structured way, they also form an
important part of Operation Resolute, which is the ADF’s contribution to border
protection. The Department of Defence (Defence) informed the committee that the
Regiment 'is allocated specific periods to conduct Operation Resolute patrols
and is required to achieve 80 patrol days per financial year (1 patrol day = 1
patrol of 6 personnel in the field for 24 hours)'.
They undertake a 'broad-ranging, long-range surveillance role', but as reserve
units are not permanently formed or operating. In 2009, this regiment conducted
115 days of patrols in the Torres Strait region under Operation Resolute which
represented 'a tempo and focus at the upper limit of the unit's capacity to
both mount and sustain'.
The AFP informed the committee that one of its staff on Thursday Island
is a Elder of the Kaurareg Clan in the Torres Strait, is proficient in the
Creol, Pidgin and PNG Moto languages and holds a Master 5 certificate in
maritime vessel operation. Because of his long and close association with local
communities, he also has a role in collecting intelligence on behalf of the
While there are examples of local people contributing to intelligence
gathering on the ground in the Torres Strait, Mr See Kee, TSRA, informed the
committee that people out in the communities want to engage more with agencies
doing border protection:
...because when you think about it the biggest asset that any
agency has, especially with border protection, is the people. They are the ones
who are the eyes and ears. They are the ones who are actually going to stop
people or let you know when things are happening.
He stated further that, in his mind, engagement by agencies involved in
border enforcement should be 'almost the highest priority and where the
majority of investment should be placed to get that relationship happening
because, without the relationship, nothing happens'.
This observation cuts across all aspects of border security, including immigration
and biosecurity, and highlights the central role that local people have in
The committee recommends that DFAT jointly with DIAC, Customs and Border
Protection, the AFP and Queensland Police review the ways in which government
agencies currently work with local communities as partners to promote border
security. The intention would be to consult with local communities to gauge
their views on how their role in border security could be improved and to use
this process to strengthen the intelligence network on the ground in the Torres
While local knowledge and information sharing is critical to assisting
border agencies in their task of securing Australia's border in the Torres
Strait, higher level intelligence is also required.
A member of C Company, 51st Battalion, Far
North Queensland Regiment, showing the equipment and rations carried by a soldier
while on patrol in the region
National intelligence network
Customs and Border Protection is Australia's lead border agency and is
responsible for protecting Australia's national interests against security
threats in Australia's offshore maritime domain. It has a vital role in
'preventing the illegal movement of people and harmful goods across Australia's
borders'. It is also responsible for coordinated land patrols to protect
Australia's maritime boundaries.
Customs and Border Protection brings together the expertise and resources of a
great number of other departments and agencies, including the ADF, AFMA, AQIS,
the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and the AFP.
Mrs Grant noted that Customs places 'a premium on the use of risk based interventions
that are driven by intelligence and targeting systems'. It uses this intelligence-led,
risk-assessed activity to target its assets 'to the highest risks'.
According to Mrs Grant:
...the maritime and aerial surveillance of our maritime domain
and on-ground information collection are critical to ensuring that we know
about risks before they reach our borders and can direct our resources to
intervene where high risks are identified.
For example, Customs referred to the Torres Strait Combined Intelligence
Group, an intelligence sharing and target development grouping of Customs, QPS
This group looks at 'collective intelligence assessments of criminal threats in
the region' and develops operational responses to them.
While based on Thursday Island, the group is managed from Cairns by senior
officers from the agencies. Three intelligence analysts with extensive experience
with the Torres Strait use their specialist knowledge to develop analytical material
that 'informs ongoing operational activity'.
The Australian Maritime Information System (AMIS) is also part of the
national intelligence network. It is located within the Border Protection
Command Centre in Canberra. Mrs Grant explained that many of the ships moving
through the strait are commercial vessels emitting a signal in accordance with
the IMO requirement. She said:
We can plot those vessels. We can look up our databases to
identify whether it is a known vessel of low risk or of no interest to us or
whether we need to do more analysis around that vessel.
Regional intelligence network
As noted on a number of occasions, the Torres Strait is a joint
jurisdictional region and requires Australia and PNG to cooperate for effective
management. This observation also applies to combating illegal activity in the strait.
Customs informed the committee that it is the lead agency in the joint
cross-border patrols conducted three times a year. The patrols of between 8–10
days include representatives of the AFP, QPS and PNG Police and Customs.
Mr Kerlin explained that these patrols bring the three law enforcement agencies
from the Australian side together with the two from PNG—PNG customs and PNG
police. According to Mr Kerlin, the patrols enable the Australian agencies to
see the communities on the PNG side and to gather information, which then
'turns into usable intelligence to drive the other work that we do'.
They also provide PNG law enforcement agencies with the opportunity to visit
some of the communities they do not normally visit.
The patrols start with an intelligence briefing and sharing of
information. During the visit, each agency has the opportunity to talk to the
community about its role and expectations in moving about the region. Mr Kerlin
stated that as time goes on, 'we start to move towards talking to particular
individuals', developing contacts and relationships within those communities. He
informed the committee about a recent initiative that came out of the Combined
Intelligence Group to develop a brochure that could be left behind in the
villages. He stated:
We are going to try to get that translated into Tok Pisin so that
it is comfortable for people to read and understand, and we will distribute
that amongst those communities as well...We are getting the words together from
our point of view, and we will send those words up to the two PNG agencies to
get their input. Once we have all the words agreed and we have it in a format
that is useful, we will send it back for conversion into Tok Pisin, and then we
will get it published. It is something that we hope to have up and running by
The committee fully supports the cross-border patrols and the efforts
being made by border enforcement agencies to meet and converse with the local
communities and with Treaty villages.
Assistant Commissioner Zuccato informed the committee further that while
there was 'certainly a risk, in terms of our knowledge of the region we have a
very good appreciation of what the threat picture looks like', for example, through
the work of the Pacific Transnational Crime Network (PTCN).
He indicated that the AFP tries to address the risk of criminal activity through
its presence in Indonesia and PNG:
To break it down, our concern with PNG as a very near
neighbour is to ensure that we maintain very close collaboration with PNG,
which we believe we have, to share as much information as we possibly can and
to work collegiately and collaboratively on criminal investigations, while at
the same time endeavouring to assist them in building their capability and
capacity to police PNG.
The AFP has a Senior Liaison Officer in Port Moresby.
According to the Assistant Commissioner, the AFP also has officers in Darwin,
Cairns and Townsville who respond to issues in the Torres Strait and 'work
collaboratively with the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary on criminal
enterprises and criminal investigations'.
Surveillance, detection and interception
A range of boats and aircraft are needed to detect, deter and apprehend
people who violate Australia's northern borders. In the Torres Strait, Customs
and Border Protection has one 12-metre and five 6-metre vessels. Four of the
smaller vessels are deployed strategically on islands within the Torres Strait
(Mabuiag, Saibai, Darnley and Coconut) and are maintained by liaison officers. An
officer is based at each of those islands.
According to Mr Kerlin, officers are flown in from Thursday Island to join up
with those officers to patrol around the islands.
A recent innovation in establishing a unit on Saibai, which can be used by
other agencies, has been well received (see paragraphs 8.50–8.51). Mr Kerlin
We put the facility up on Saibai so that we could spend more
time up there operationally. But Badu has been an island of specific interest during
the course of this year. It has the largest population after Thursday Island so
for that reason it attracts a bit of attention.
In addition, the agency operates two bay class vessels that provide 'a
persistent patrol and response capability in or near the Torres Strait'. They
conduct irregular patrols to keep operations 'unpredictable'.
Mrs Grant explained that the vessels were approaching the end of their existing
The 2010 budget announced that the government had approved a significant
investment to replace these vessels 'with an enhanced capability' that would play
a critical role in border security. It would:
...address more than one security challenge by providing
surveillance and response capabilities across northern Australia to counter
illegal people smuggling, illegal foreign fishing, trafficking of illicit goods
as well as search and rescue and counter-terrorism activities.
The agency is also looking to replace a number of the smaller 6-metre vessels
with newer vessels in the next six to 12 months.
Referring to the agency's ability to take effective action, Ms Kelly said that
the agency had a capacity to respond at any time if something were detected in
the surveillance activity.
Customs' Bay Class vessel—CORIO BAY
Committee members leaving CORIO BAY after inspecting
Border Protection Command
Situated in Customs and Border Protection, Border Protection Command
leads and coordinates Australia's airline surveillance and maritime response
all around Australia, including the deployment of aerial and surface assets in
the Torres Strait region.
This 'standing multi-agency authority operates 'as a single maritime
surveillance, response and interception agency'. It manages the security and
integrity of Australia's borders and has command and operational control over
land, air and sea surveillance assets assigned to it.
Its primary task is to ensure that 'any threat to Australia's offshore maritime
areas and coastline is quickly detected and defeated'. It combines the
resources and expertise of Customs and Border Protection and Defence and works
with officers from AFMA, AQIS, and other Australian, state and territory government
The head of Border Protection Command is an ADF Rear Admiral who has
command of assets assigned to it by 'Defence, Customs, AFP, fisheries and a
range of other assets'. To respond to a border protection contingency, the Rear
Admiral can 'pick and choose which asset he uses'. For example:
If he has intelligence relating to activity in a particular
area—say, the Torres Strait—he might use an Armidale class patrol boat that is
assigned to him or he might use 51FNQR [51 Far North Queensland Regiment], but
equally he might use a Customs vessel.
Mr Lachlan Colquhoun, Department of Defence, explained that border
protection was construed in this fashion to ensure 'adequate synchronisation
between all the different surveillance and response options' available in the
north. He noted further that additional assets could be assigned if a
particular threat arose.
In the TSPZ, Border Protection Command conducts daily aerial
surveillance and maintains a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week capability to respond
to border incursions. In the region, it operates two surveillance helicopters, which
are based on Horn Island in the Torres Strait. It also uses a DASH 8 or Reims
F406 fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, which flies out of Weipa and makes daily
flights across the Torres Strait and as noted earlier the two Customs and
Border Protection bay class vessels patrol in or near the Torres Strait.
Mrs Grant explained that, 'Our civil maritime surveillance and response program
is designed for early detection of arrivals to Australia in any location'.
According to Mrs Grant, in the 2009 budget, the agency was funded to
reactivate two Reims aircraft to focus particularly on additional flying hours
against irregular maritime arrivals.
She noted that contracts for the aircraft and the helicopters had recently been
renewed and there was a new fleet of assets.
Defence contributes to Border Protection Command through Operation
Resolute. At any one time, there are seven Armidale class patrol boats assigned
to this operation which covers not only the Torres Strait but the 'whole of
Northern Australia'. The boats are deployed depending upon the intelligence at
the time. The committee has mentioned the work of C Company, Far North
Queensland Regiment, which is made up mainly of reservists who undertake surveillance
and reconnaissance activities in the region.
Success of Australia's surveillance
and apprehension regime in Torres Strait
The detection and apprehension of illegal fishers in the region provides
an indication of the success that the existing regime is having in the Torres
Strait. In its May 2006 Budget, the government established a new $388.9 million
plan 'to combat illegal fishing in northern Australian waters', which brought
the total commitment to 'well over half a billion dollars'. Since then, there
has been a noticeable decline in the number of incidents.
Customs 2008–09 Annual Report showed that the number of apprehensions
continued a significant downward trend, indicating that the 'comprehensive maritime
operations were having a significant deterrent effect'.
As noted in an earlier chapter, the report maintained that during 2008–09:
The deterrent effect of enforcement efforts over the last two
years has seen a reduction in illegal fishing activity in Australia's northern
waters to the point where large concentrations of vessels sit just beyond the
Australian Exclusive Economic Zone boundary, undertaking frequent shallow
incursions into Australian waters.
Mrs Grant also informed the committee that the program of on-water
enforcement had seen raids into Australian waters diminish greatly, with the
foreign fishing vessels staying out on the edge of the exclusive economic zone
In its 2010 Budget, the government continued funding to combat illegal fishing in
Australia's northern waters by providing $59.1 million over four years to
maintain 'a strong deterrence to illegal foreign fishing through surveillance
and response to incursions'.
While recognising the effectiveness of current efforts to combat illegal
fishing in the Torres Strait, the committee notes that Customs and Border
Protection also referred to foreign fishing vessels waiting just outside
Australia's EEZ to take the opportunity for shallow incursions. Clearly, any
relaxation of Australia's efforts could once again entice illegal fishers back
into the strait.
One of the main reasons for the absence of organised crime in the Torres
Strait may be due in large part to the current close monitoring that takes
place across the strait and the presence of numerous government agencies in the
region, including immigration, quarantine, fisheries, customs, foreign affairs,
defence and police forces––not to mention local communities keen to keep their
localities safe and free from crime. This high degree of surveillance removes
the opportunity and incentive for criminals to operate in the region. The
committee notes, however, that any relaxation in enforcement would once again
leave the region exposed to the threat of criminal activity. In this regard,
the committee recognises the need for the Australian Government to continue to
support and fund adequately efforts to combat illegal fishing and other
unauthorised incursions in the Torres Strait.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government continue to
support and fund adequately the effort to combat illegal fishing in the Torres
The committee has noted on a number of occasions the importance of
Australia and PNG cooperating and coordinating their activities in the vicinity
of and in the Torres Strait. In the context of surveillance and interception,
it should be noted that according to Defence, while the Australian Navy does
basic skills transfer with the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF), it does not engage in
joint patrols. Mr Colquhoun explained further that PNG deploys their patrol
boats primarily to protect their fisheries, especially its tuna industry, north
of PNG. He suggested that PNG's focus would not be on unauthorised people
entering the Torres Strait to undertake traditional activities in the region.
In its submission, Customs and Border Protection stated that stretches
of water within the Torres Strait remain either uncharted or only partially
surveyed. Mrs Grant explained that the significant areas of uncharted water
adjacent to land in the Torres Strait affects Australia's ability to apprehend
illegal fishers. She explained that often small vessels operating or suspected of
operating illegally do not stay in charted waters but go among the smaller
islands for which charts do not exist and where Australia's marine surveillance
assets cannot follow. According to Customs and Border Protection, safety
requirements prevent their water-borne assets from entering into or pursuing
other craft in waters generally used by vessels of interest. Mrs Grant noted
that it was standard operating procedure not to sail into uncharted areas, which
allows 'somebody to perhaps evade our efforts to disrupt their activities'.
She explained that:
The shallow waters are a big issue for us up in that area.
The tenders can go into waters that the Bay Class vessels cannot, in any event,
but, if they are completely unknown waters, the CO has no discretion to take a
vessel into such waters.
Even though the program of on-water enforcement has brought about a
significant reduction in illegal foreign fishing, Mrs Grant noted that if the
circumstances were to change, then the uncharted waters would become more of a
priority issue again.
Mr Kris, TSRA, noted the difficulty that Customs had moving around the waters
near Boigu where, in the past, 'we have seen a few foreign fishing vessels
getting through that particular area'. He understood that it was 'hard for
Customs to get in there because of the uncharted waters'. Mr Kris observed:
Again, through the service delivery planning that we were doing,
we are seeing Customs and other agencies coming on board to actually help push
the issue of getting the whole of that particular area charted so there is
protection of our region.
According to Mr See Kee, the matter of uncharted waters had been brought
to TSRA's attention from time to time, 'often in passing by some of the
enforcement agencies at forums like the JAC or others'.
He stated, however:
...I would have thought it would have been a high priority not
just for those agencies which rely on it but also to raise that not just with
the TSRA but also with the other arms of government that will have some level
of influence in actually pushing that up the priority list and having the
In his view, the TSRA had operated in good faith and assumed that if
charting these areas was a priority, it was being addressed, 'so we are
surprised that a lot of the area is still uncharted as well'.
Mrs Grant informed the committee that the Department of Defence was
provided with additional funding to do more charting of the waters in the
Torres Strait. To her knowledge, Defence had a significant program of work to
try to continue charting as much of the waters as is possible.
In this regard, the Department of Defence informed the committee that Navy's
National Hydrographic Surveying and Charting Program had identified a number of
outstanding areas in the Torres Strait, including the southern coast of PNG. It
explained that these areas 'are planned to be fully completed in the next three
years using a continuation of Navy hydrographic surveys, augmented by
commercial contract surveys'. Defence stated that 'the Australian Hydrographic
Service had submitted a request for further funding of $9.65 million, required
to complete those areas along the southern coast of PNG', earmarked for
completion using commercial contract surveys in 2010.
The committee understands that there are still large tracts of water in
the Torres Strait that remain uncharted. It is also aware that some work is
being done to chart more areas. Even so, the committee is of the view that the
charting of the Torres Strait should be a high priority and recommends that the
Australian Government increase the amount of funding needed to expedite the charting
of the waters of the Torres Strait, especially between Saibai and Boigu and the
tract of water along their northern borders.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government provide the
funding needed to expedite the charting of uncharted waters in the Torres
Strait, with priority given to the waters between Saibai and Boigu and the area
north of these islands.
The committee recommends further that the Department of Defence provide
the committee with periodic updates on the progress being made to chart the
waters of the Torres Strait.
Cooperation between enforcement agencies
To be effective in carrying out their respective responsibilities,
government agencies in the region need to cooperate. The committee has cited
numerous situations where agencies support each other. For example, MMOs and
AQIS officers help each other in processing PNG visitors at designated entry
points, and agencies such as DFAT, DIAC, Customs and QPS participate in the
Treaty awareness visits.
When it comes to border control measures, Customs and Border Protection
rely on the law enforcement agencies for assistance. Mr Kerlin informed the
committee that his agency works closely with the two police forces on a
He noted that Customs and Border Protection had been involved in a joint
exercise to combat drug trafficking with the QPS and the AFP, called 'Weed It
Out', an Australian Government-funded exercise run by Queensland Police. According
to Mr Kerlin, a major exercise on Badu Island was undertaken in response to
information received in early 2009 that some people were moving cannabis to the
island. This action led to some 30 charges being laid for various drug-related
offences which was part of a well-established activity.
Similarly, Commissioner Atkinson indicated that the police had had some
successes with containing traffic in the drug. He also drew attention to the 'Weed
It Out' program, which, in his view, was a good one and working well—with both 'a
preventative and a reactive focus'.
The Police Commissioner acknowledged the responsibility of QPS to support
federal law enforcement.
Assistant Commissioner Zuccato reinforced the view that the various
Australian law and border enforcement agencies work closely together in the
The committee understands that organised crime in the Torres Strait is
opportunistic and that the presence of government officials coupled with a
comprehensive surveillance regime provides a significant deterrence. The efforts
to combat illegal fishing demonstrate this success.
In the chapter on law and order, however, the committee noted that local
communities have called for a greater presence by law enforcement agencies in
the strait, particularly on the outer islands. In this regard, the committee understands
that there are two Federal Police officers based on Thursday Island who, as
noted earlier, travel to the outlying islands as part of joint patrols with
Customs and Border Protection and other agencies.
The committee has also noted the comment by the Queensland Police Commissioner that
although most of the issues in the region are similar to those confronting the
police in communities throughout Australia, border security 'is particularly
unique' to the Torres Strait environment. Furthermore, when pressed on the
matter of the presence of Federal Police in the region, he indicated that there
was 'room for more'.
The committee recommends that, in consultation with law enforcement and
border security agencies working in the Torres Strait, the AFP review its presence
in the region and consider whether it adequately meets the level of risk and
To this stage, the committee has focused on organised crime in the Torres
Strait as a threat to border security. The committee now considers
socio-economic factors that may also affect Australia's security in the region.
Socio-economic factors in Western Province
The committee has already discussed the poor living standards of
communities in the South Fly District and their lack of access to basic
services. Indeed, one witness described the region 'as among the most marginalised
Importantly, according to three researchers who have worked on both sides of
the border, such conditions in the South Fly District could have implications
for border security in the Torres Strait.
Mr Murphy informed the committee that 'Australia has a growing and increasingly
dissatisfied population right alongside the border', that 'is likely to lead to
further insecurity threats to Australia itself'.
Dr Hitchcock also drew attention to areas of growing populations in Western
Province, citing Daru which had a population of 13,000 at the 2000 census but
could be expected to be much higher now. He mentioned the changing demographics
in the context of resource use in the Torres Strait and was of the view that
the population trend was of concern. He said that it:
...feeds into land disputes and things like access to potable
water and resources for both subsistence—that is to eat on a day-to-day
Dr Lawrence acknowledged that building up Western Province was not Australia’s
responsibility. He noted, however:
...the security of the Australian side is definitely based on
the stability of the western province and that, I think, is a concern of the
three of us. We have worked there, we have lived there, we know the people and
we are worried about their future.
An additional problem associated with concerns about rivalry over land
and resources is the uncertainty generated by changes in climate.
Climate change and border control
In his first speech on Australia's national security, the former Prime
Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, stated that 'Over the long term, climate change
represents a most fundamental national security challenge for the long term
He argued that unless properly dealt with by effective policy action, this
emerging problem will have long-term security impacts—locally, regionally or
globally. He also suggested that, among other things, significant climate
change would bring about unregulated population movements and declining food
He indicated that this area of emerging consequences would :
...require the formal incorporation of climate change within
Australia’s national security policy and analysis process.
As noted in this report, changes in climate in the Torres Strait have
implications for the conservation of vulnerable marine species and for
biosecurity. Some witnesses have suggested that long-term changes in climate
may also result in population movements and diminishing access to food, water
and land in the region. Dr Sheppard, CSIRO, noted:
The short-term impacts on sea level rise are likely in the
northern islands, which are less than one metre above sea level and already
subject to high tide inundation. Longer term, indirect impacts on the region
could include increased competition and demand for services and natural
resources such as fisheries.
The TSRA expressed serious concerns about changes to rainfall patterns,
hotter weather, the spread of diseases, and damage to ecosystems. In its view,
these events may affect Torres Strait Island communities, 'already vulnerable
due to socio-economic factors and remoteness', and 'whose culture, subsistence
and livelihoods involve traditional and commercial fishing, hunting and
It noted the vulnerability of low-lying islands to sea level rise and explained
that 'even small increases in sea level due to climate change are likely to
have a major impact on these communities, with increasing frequency and extent of
inundation'. The authority stated further:
Under worst case sea level rise scenarios it is likely that
eventually relocation would be required from several communities involving
considerable cost culturally, spiritually and economically.
The TSRA identified a number of specific concerns that could have a
direct bearing on border control and, more generally, national security,
especially if water and food scarcity placed increased demands on Torres Strait
Villages on the PNG side of the border may also come under similar
pressures, which, given their proximity to Australia, would create a
significant border security issue. In its submission, the TSRA referred to the
problems caused by changes in climate facing neighbouring coastal communities
in PNG's Western Province and Irian Jaya in Indonesia. They included increased
tidal inundation and flooding effects on coastal communities, potential impacts
to marine ecosystems, and significant potential for future food and water
security issues in the region. It stated further:
With no developed hinterland for these people to retreat to
in their own country, there are at present incalculable consequences for future
food and water security in the Torres Strait, should 'environmental refugees'
from PNG and other neighbouring countries start to arrive on Australia’s shores.
Similar concerns were raised by local leaders during the committee's
visit to Saibai and Boigu. For example, they mentioned that PNG nationals with
their gardens under water would have good reason to move into the strait. Appearing
on television, Mr John Kris, TSRA, expressed fears about people coming across
from the PNG coast because of sea level rises.
The committee has discussed the possible adverse effects of changes in
climate that affect a range of matters—health, conservation, biosecurity and
national security. Evidence considered so far has highlighted the current shortcomings
in the scientific understanding of climate change in the Torres Strait,
including the adjacent areas of PNG. It recognised the need for all researchers
looking at environmental matters in the region to work collaboratively in order
to build a far more complete and comprehensive picture of what is happening and
likely to happen in the Torres Strait. The committee considers developments in
this area in greater detail in the following chapter.
The committee notes that socio-economic developments in the South Fly
District and climate changes in the region could have a major effect on
security in the Torres Strait. Both factors have the potential to generate
social and economic conditions that could lead to increased competition for
land, food and water. Communities in, and in the vicinity of, the Torres Strait,
faced with the prospect of increased competition for essential but scarce
resources or having to re-locate, would pose a significant challenge for the
Australian Government. No matter how remote such prospects may be, the
committee is firmly of the view that socio-economic and climate change factors
should now be major considerations in Australia's national security assessments
for the region.
Although the committee has noted that some unauthorised visitors from
PNG arrive and remain on islands in the Torres Strait, particularly those in
the outer areas, any larger-scale unauthorised or illegal activity is likely to
be detected by the close monitoring of vessels that travel through the strait. The
effective response by Border Protection Command to reports of suspicious
activity in the area further enhances Australia's border security in the
region. While the current surveillance and interception regime is an effective
deterrent, the committee is of the view that efforts in this area must
continue. It also notes that some aspects of border security could be
strengthened by improving the identification system for PNG visitors and
completing the charting of the waters of the strait. Climate change and the
challenges it presents to the region are a further concern to border security
in the form of 'environmental refugees' from PNG to the Torres Strait.
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