Australia Sends Migrants Found in Crocodile-Infested Waters to Detention

SYDNEY, Australia — For the first time in nearly four years, a group of migrants was caught illegally entering the Australian mainland by sea this week, after surviving a shipwreck and several days in crocodile-infested waters, the authorities said.

By Tuesday, all 17 migrants believed to be aboard the boat were found in the area near the mangrove swamps of Far North Queensland, two days after the vessel ran aground and law enforcement officials began a search of the area.

Once the migrants were all accounted for, the government said on Tuesday that the group would be deported to Christmas Island, an Australian territory nearly 1,000 miles from the closest point in continental Australia, where they would be detained and their immigration statuses determined.

“Under Australia’s strict border protection policies, no one who travels to Australia illegally by boat is permitted to remain in Australia,” the Department of Home Affairs said in a statement released on Tuesday. “These individuals are being processed on Christmas Island.”

It is rare for migrants to reach mainland Australia by sea. The country has strict, and contentious, rules that ban such journeys. Since 2013, migrants who are caught in Australia’s territorial waters are subject to deportation or detention at offshore facilities on the islands of Nauru and Manus, Papua New Guinea.

But the government also maintains such a facility on Christmas Island, where more than 200 migrants were being held as of June. Unlike Nauru and Manus, Christmas Island is an Australian territory, and detainees there are entitled to some of the protections afforded by Australian law.

Around 1,600 asylum seekers remain on Nauru and Manus, according to the most recent report from Human Rights Watch.

The government says its zero-tolerance policy toward migrants who make the journey by sea is in place to discourage human trafficking and dangerous trips, but critics contend the rules are discriminatory and violate migrants’ rights.

The trip to Christmas Island will prolong an already long and perilous journey for the 17 Vietnamese citizens who escaped the beached vessel.

Justin Ward, a fisherman from Wonga Beach, said he found two of the migrants on Sunday afternoon on a mangrove bank while traveling from Snapper Island.

“We pulled the boat up and helped them get into the boat,” Mr. Ward said in an interview.

“I felt very sorry for them — I would have liked to taken them home and given them a feed and shower if possible, and showed them some Australian hospitality before they got shipped back,” he said. “But of course you can’t do that. They shouldn’t be here.”

Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, said: “I want to confirm for you today that Australia, we believe, has received the first vessel; the first people-smuggling venture in over 1,400 days. The people smugglers need to hear the message from this government very, very clearly: They will not succeed in putting people onto boats to get to Australia.”

The boat’s evasion of the border authorities was a “failing” in surveillance, Mr. Dutton said, adding that since 2014, the government had stopped 33 boats and disrupted over 70 people-smuggling operations.

A boat carrying six Chinese citizens arrived in 2017 on Saibai Island, a territory controlled by Australia that is closer to Papua New Guinea.

A passing fisherman first reported the grounded boat to the Port Douglas Marine Rescue around 7 a.m. on Sunday. There were no signs of people on board, but officials said it appeared to be an Indonesian fishing vessel.

In order to reach civilization, the migrants would have had to navigate by foot the swampy waters that are home to crocodiles, said Ross Wood, president of the Port Douglas Marine Rescue.

“You don’t want to go in any of the rivers around here,” he said.

Mr. Ward, the fisherman who picked up two of the migrants, said the men were “very humble, polite.”

Although they spoke little English, he understood they were brothers from north of Hanoi, Vietnam. One man was in his 20s, the other in his 30s. Mr. Ward said he offered them water, which they accepted, and food, which they turned down.

“I said, ‘Dude, you must be hungry.’ Whether they were too polite to accept it — I think might have been the case,” Mr. Ward added.

Mr. Ward said he felt he had no choice but to report them to the police, but decided to break the news to the migrants gently. For the next hour, they picked up crab pots, spotted some crocodiles in the river and took pictures before he dropped them on a private boat ramp on a nearby beach, where the police were waiting.

For locals, the fate of the migrants was an unexpectedly stark reminder of the realities of Australia’s immigration policy.

“I agree we can’t have everybody moving into the country,” Mr. Ward said. “It’s just hard when they end up on your boat.”

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