A search continues for a group of people who abandoned a suspected illegal fishing boat in the Daintree River in far north Queensland, but already the government is blaming Labor for the latest arrival.
Australian Border Force said it is responding to what is believed to be an illegal fishing vessel in the Daintree River area in far north Queensland.
The Department of Home Affairs has confirmed 11 people have been located so far. Two of those found have since been arrested.
Failed prime ministerial aspirant and newly re-sworn in Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton blamed the latest arrival on the Labor Party’s policy on asylum seekers.
“I have … warned the Labor Party time and time again about their commentary about people coming to Australia and then ending up in New Zealand,” he said.
“I’ve warned the Labor Party on talking on time limits and how people if they stayed on Nauru and Manus would be there only for a limited time and then end up in our country … I want to confirm for you today that Australia, we believe, has received the first vessel, first people-smuggling venture in over 1400 days.
“We understand the vessel originated out of Vietnam … We will work with the agencies to make sure we can repatriate these people back to their country of origin, once we understand the facts of the matter.”
Cairns state MP Michael Healy said the vessel was discovered abandoned in croc-infested waters.
“The crew, or whoever was on that boat, have abandoned that vessel, so the thought is that they’re probably on land somewhere,” he said.
“We don’t know whether these are illegal refugees or we don’t know if these are fishermen who were maybe fishing illegally and have ended up in Australian waters and the boat’s gone bad and they’ve got trapped.”
Daintree tourism operator David Patterson said local fishermen in the region were surprised to see the foreign vessel floating in the river.
“I’d just done a fishing tour at the mouth of the Daintree this morning and we saw this boat that looked like Chinese junk near Cape Kimberley,” he said.
“It was empty and apparently, other boaties were saying over the radio, it was adrift and before that people were seen leaving it and running off into the bush at Cape Kimberley.
“We saw this boat and didn’t think a lot of it really, then after the radio chatter [we heard] it was deserted and people were seen leaving it.”
Douglas Shire Mayor Julia Leu said she was relieved some people onboard the vessel had been located, but said there were concerns for the safety of those still at large.
“There has been a concern throughout the afternoon that these people are putting themselves at risk in known crocodile habitat,” she said.
“It’s really quite treacherous to be in crocodile habitat in the Daintree, in the mangroves and in the rainforest, where you certainly don’t know the area.”
In a statement, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the first priority was to confirm the safety and welfare of the people onboard the vessel.
Katter Australia Party leader Bob Katter, whose electorate of Kennedy is to the south of the Daintree region, said the incident was a reminder that Australia needed more resources when it came to border protection.
“This is a classic case. The border needs protection. The most important thing a government has to do is to protect its people,” he said.
Mr Katter said the reports of foreign vessels angered him “enormously”.
“They have caught [some of] these people but how many out there haven’t been caught?” he said.
“We have no capacity to intercept. There should be boats placed in Karumba, the Torres Strait, the Gove Peninsula and half a dozen boats placed in Darwin and Cairns.”