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A search is continuing for two missing crew members who abandoned what Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has called a people smuggling boat in the Daintree River area in far north Queensland.
Fisherman in the region reported seeing several people abandon the boat and flee into the rainforest near Cape Kimberley, which is a known crocodile habitat, on Sunday morning.
The ABC understands 17 people were on board the vessel — believed to be from Vietnam — and two, including the captain, are still missing.
Queensland Police Minister Mark Ryan said officers were assisting with the operational side of what was a federal matter.
“I understand that 15 people have been now detained on behalf of the Australian Border Force and they will be assessed by the Australian Border Force and dealt with in accordance with Australian law,” he said.
Mr Dutton said the boat’s arrival was the result of a surveillance failure.
“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,” Mr Dutton said.
“Clearly there’s been a failing when surveillance has not worked as it should in identifying this vessel or allowing this vessel to get as close to the coast as it has,” he said.
“But it’s a reminder that the people smugglers have not gone out of business,” he said.
Australian Border Force (ABF) officials, Queensland police and the State Emergency Service (SES) are continuing the search for the crew members still missing and said human safety was their top priority.
Police are searching cars and caravans at the Daintree River ferry to make sure no-one was stowed away.
Earlier, an ABF spokesperson said it was investigating what it believed to be an illegal fishing vessel that ran aground north of Port Douglas.
“The ABF has a contingent of officers on-site and is grateful for the support being provided by Queensland Police Service,” the spokesperson said.
“We can confirm that a number of potential unlawful non-citizens have been located.
“The ABF and Department of Home Affairs will undertake the necessary border processes to establish circumstances around the arrival.
“As investigations into this matter are ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Mr Dutton said the suspected asylum seekers would be deported.
“The threat of people smugglers hasn’t gone away and the arrival of this boat should be a very clear and timely message that people smugglers will put people onto boats, to take money from innocent, men women and children,” he said.
“We have been very clear that we won’t allow people who arrive illegally into our country to settle in this country. People will be deported from our country at the first available opportunity.”
SES acting local area director Peter Rinaudo said his crews worked until after midnight searching for those missing in the known crocodile habitat.
Mr Rinaudo said while details were scarce, police had requested 10 SES crews for a land search today.
“Crews will be briefed on the ground, but we will have crews searching through the mangroves today and two boat crews searching near the mouth of the Daintree River,” he said.
“It’ll be a hard slog, it’s still quite warm in there and it’ll be tough conditions for the guys.
“I hope the people, however many there are, get located — it’s not a nice area for them to be in.
“Obviously our main goal is to make sure our volunteers who have given up a day’s paid work get home safe.”
Boat sank on Sunday
Port Douglas Marine Rescue president Ross Wood said a concerned fisherman called him about 7:00am on Sunday after seeing the boat abandoned in the Daintree.
“The boat was taking on water. Later in the day, about midday, we were called to try and stop the boat from sinking but we couldn’t get there in time,” he said.
“It had sunk by the time we got out there — it was low tide so it wasn’t fully under water, but at high tide we’d suspect it would be submerged.
“It was in a state of disrepair with a lot of diesel drums on it.”
Mr Wood said they looked around for people but had not seen any.
“My suspicion is the people had left the boat long before the morning,” he said.
“It was just near the mouth of the Daintree, so 100 metres from shore or so.
“You have to wonder how a boat like this would get so far without being detected.”
Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Steve Gollschewski said it was too soon to know the motives of the people who were travelling on the boat.
“It’s under investigation … the true motivation of what these people are up to will become apparent as the days go by,” he said.
“We’ll wait and see what the facts are … and how it got there and the journey that it took.”
‘No risk if they don’t go in the water’
Tour operator David White has been taking people up the Daintree River for 20 years and said there was little risk to those missing, unless they unknowingly waded into crocodile habitat.
“At the mouth of the river there’s beaches on both sides and there’s rainforest and mangroves,” he said.
“There are crocodiles in the river but not hundreds of them, just one or two.
“There is no risk if they don’t go in the water.
“But if they aren’t familiar with the area, if they go in the water behind the beach where the river is or to stand on the edge of the deep water where it’s murky, there is a risk [of a crocodile attack].
“It would be very hard going if they go through the rainforest. I hope they are found safe and well.”