Bizarre Happenings at Reef
June 28, 1999
A ship's ironing board on the sand, skull and cross bone signs warning of
cholera in a well, green Army tents, burnt limbs and 86 thirsty and hungry
That was the scene for several days on the 1000-metre-long West Islet of
the Ashmore Reef group 600 kilometres north-west of Broome.
When the roar of heavy lift helicopters from Lloyds and Bristows echoed
across the islet as, every few hours, the immigrants were evacuated to the
mainland, the islet quickly became known as the "Ashmore International Airport."
The arrival of the 86 alleged illegal immigrants aboard two Type 2 motorised
Indonesian fishing boats was the largest group to land on Ashmore. The group,
made up of two Indonesian fishing crews of five each plus 76 men from Middle
Eastern countries including Kurds and Bangladeshis, landed on the islet
on the weekend of June 12/13.
HMAS WOLLONGONG (LCDR Henry Pearce) left Broome and at "best speed" raced
to the island.
"We found a total of 86 on the islet. Ten had suffered burns when brushing
against the exhaust pipes of the boats. Twelve had cut feet from the coral.
All were thirsty but otherwise in reasonably good health.
"Fortunately they had not touched the water in the three wells on the island.
One well has cholera; the other two are contaminated…dead birds in them
"They had read the English/Indonesian signs warning against drinking the
water. And they knew what the skull and cross bone signs meant."
The Australians set up a tent city on the islet with WOLLONGONG's medical
team treating the men for their burns and cuts.
"We needed some sort of desk from which to process the 86 so we used an
ironing board from WOLLONGONG," LCDR Pearce said.
WOLLONGONG took the fishermen and some of the illegal immigrants to Broome
but not before the ship's company did an environmental clean up of the campsite.