‘Illegals’ flee into crocodile-infested forest
A DESPERATE search is under way for at least 20 suspected illegal immigrants on the run in dense rainforest after a foreign fishing boat ran aground north of Cairns.
In extraordinary scenes captured by The Courier-Mail, 11 people were on Sunday detained, some well-dressed, as they sat on an isolated beach near the crocodile-infested Daintree River, surrounded by Australian Border Force officials and police.
A search was being carried out for at least 20 others who escaped into the mangroves.
In what could be the first test for newly minted Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was famously behind the "stop the boats" campaign, it is understood Queensland Police suspect the people to be illegal immigrants and one of them revealed he was a cab driver.
However, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson would only confirm Border Force was "responding to what we believe to be an illegal fishing vessel".
The trawler remained partially submerged on Sunday night, about 150m off the beach, with a large diesel oil spill trailing towards the coast near Snapper Island, 18km north of Port Douglas.
It is understood a local fishing boat towed the vessel into deeper water after it ran aground at the mouth of the Daintree River earlier on Sunday.
Australian Maritime Safety Authority requested helicopter support to fly to the scene in the pristine waters of the inner Great Barrier Reef, known for large crocodiles and hammerhead sharks, about 11am.
The foreign boat could be seen to be heavily loaded with blue barrels used for sea cucumbers on the forward deck, and the perimeter of the trawler gantry was decked out with squid lanterns.
Workers attempt to stem the flow of diesel from the vessel. Picture: Marc McCormack
About nine detainees could be seen sitting on the beach, under guard of armed police and ABF officers, next to three police 4WDs.
It is understood the police dog squad was also deployed for the search.
Seven men and two women, who appeared to be in good health, were well dressed in jeans, jackets, caps and footwear, with their luggage at their feet.
Police told local fishermen at the site the group had claimed to be asylum seekers and it is understood senior officers were treating them as illegal immigrants, rather than illegal fishers.
It is understood Border Force officials were waiting for an interpreter to help determine the group's motives.
It comes after a week of turmoil in Australian politics in which Queensland MP Peter Dutton, known for his hardline approach to asylum seekers as Home Affairs Minister, launched a coup against Malcolm Turnbull for the prime ministership.
He ultimately lost to Mr Morrison, but will retain his Home Affairs portfolio and be sworn back in tomorrow.
Border Force has a fleet of two helicopters with night vision and FLIR (infra-red) equipment, fixed wing aircraft and drones that patrol the Torres Strait and it is unclear how the foreign fishing boat slipped under the radar.
In 1999, a 35m cargo boat with 26 Chinese nationals on-board ran aground, just 10km from the Cairns CBD.
For three days, like this latest incident, it had negotiated the inner shipping route of the Great Barrier Reef without being intercepted in Australian waters.
Newsagent Bruce Sharples contacted authorities after he was asked to call a taxi for some of the boat people, some of whom were dressed in suits and carrying suitcases.
Less than a month later, a 40m tug boat with at least 58 illegal Chinese immigrants on board chugged down the east coast for 10 days before it ground itself at Scotts Head, near Nambucca Heads.
In mid-June, authorities intercepted the 33rd boat since the start of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013.
It is understood the large but basic vessel, which was identified by Australian authorities by air and sea surveillance, was uncomfortably close to Australian territory before it was intercepted by the Navy.