A ramshackle fishing boat carrying suspected asylum seekers from Sri Lanka has made an astonishing arrival at the busy West Australian port of Geraldton, just 400km north of Perth, the Australian media reported.
SBS news reported that stunned locals enjoying a lunchtime coffee at a harbourside eatery spotted the blue and white fishing vessel floating near the shore around 12 noon today (Tuesday).
Despite Geraldton Port being one of Australia’s busiest regional ports, the boat with 66 people aboard made it to within metres of the mainland – and was intercepted first by two local men in a dinghy.
Those on board told the men they had been at sea for at least six weeks, having travelled more than 5000km to reach Geraldton, a port more used to dealing with iron ore, grains, talc, garnet and fertilisers.
The arrivals, who included children and pregnant women, said they had been intending to travel to New Zealand and held up a flag pleading for assistance.
Instead, customs officials towed the vessel to shore and set up a temporary screening centre on the portside, with a spokesman for home affairs minister Jason Clare confirming the 66 had arrived from Sri Lanka.
Scott Ranch, manager of the Dome cafe where patrons sat and watched in amazement, said at first he thought the boat was a prank.
“People weren’t sure what was going on,” Mr Ranch told AAP.
“We thought it was a hoax or a publicity stunt, but then we saw the customs towing it away.”
As the passengers were being screened, debate reignited over how a boat from Sri Lanka could get so far south, and so close to the mainland, without being spotted.
WA Premier Colin Barnett said the arrival was shocking and unprecedented.
“The state government is working co-operatively with the commonwealth on this issue and will ensure people’s welfare is being looked after,” the premier said.
“Nevertheless, this is a serious, unprecedented and unacceptable breach of Australia’s border security.
“That a boat, laden with people, can sail into a busy regional port in broad daylight is shocking.”
Federal opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Australia’s border control situation had gone “from the bizarre to the ridiculous”.
“(They) would be rightly shaking their heads at just where border protection in this country has come to,” he told reporters.
“Just how bad does it have to get?”
The Bureau of Meteorology said gale-force winds were recorded blowing in a southwesterly direction between Cocos Island and Christmas Island on Monday and Tuesday.
Authorities are deciding where to house the asylum seekers on Tuesday night, with some suggesting a wing of nearby Greenough prison might be utilised.
“They have picked a really nice part of the coast to come ashore, and you do have to wonder how they get this far down the coast without being detected,” Geraldton mayor Ian Carpenter said.
“It will be an issue to find accommodation for that many people.”