Torres-PNG border checks must be bolstered: Warren Entsch

All that stands between Australia and Papua New Guinea is an under­staffed, dilapidated demountable building serving as a Customs office, federal government MP Warren Entsch has warned.

Entsch, whose far north Queensland electorate takes in the Torres Strait, will today take Health Minister Sussan Ley and Attorney-General George Brandis to one of Australia’s most northerly points, the remote ­Saibai Island, to push his case for a greater government presence on the porous border.

From the shores of Saibai, the mangrove-lined PNG coastline about 4km away is ­clearly visible. Tens of thousands of journeys are made each year ­between the PNG coastal villages and the outer Torres Strait Islands, under the Torres Strait Treaty signed by the governments in the 1970s, but Entsch is concerned the border is also letting through drugs and disease.

“It’s the only place of its type in Australia,” the Leichhardt MP told The Australian, ahead of his visit with the ministers to Saibai today, as part of Tony ­Abbott’s visit to the Torres Strait and northern Cape York this week.

“It’s only when you’re sitting there watching the deer swim across from Sigabadura (the nearest PNG village) … that you realise how amazing it is, and what a vulnerable border it is.

“My argument is that if you have a look ... what stands ­between us and the border is one old demountable, the Customs building, which serves for everything. What I’m arguing is that, as a country, we can do better than that, we need to do better.’’

The Torres Strait Regional Authority has raised similar concerns with the Prime Minister this week, as the government continues to take a hard line on other border protection issues.

Entsch is pushing for a multi-agency facility able to house at least a dozen federal and state staff, including health workers, police and immigration officers, and for it to be staffed full-time.

For the people of the impoverished villages in PNG closest to Australia, the ability to freely travel between the two nations is ­imperative. There are Customs and quarantine staff stationed on the island to check arrivals. There are no police officers on Saibai, but there are three community police who have no arrest powers.

When The Australian visited Saibai last week, 38-year-old Mapa Yelu, from the PNG village of Sigabadura, was selling his wares. He travels most weekdays across the narrow — but sometimes-treacherous — channel, often in a banana boat owned by his brother.

Last week, he was selling an intricate wooden carving of a crocodile eating a barramundi, mounted on a bow and arrow, that took him three days to make.  Yelu said he hoped to sell the piece for $150, an amount that would put one of his four children through school for 18 months.

“White people come and they buy my carvings,” he said. “They normally sell for $150(US$106), the large ones, dugong carvings for $50 (US$35), and smaller ones for $20 (S$14) or $30 (US$21). It helps me look after my family.”