Port Hedland is an industrial town. Great heaps of salt grow out of conveyer belts as you enter the place. Steel frames, the colour of rust, mark the skyline. This is different to the past few days in a space that largely has been untouched by human development. But there is something inspiring about the industry of the place. There is a beauty here too.
It was not far from here that in July 2003 a boat called the Hao Kiet, with fifty-three Vietnamese passengers on board, was intercepted. It was initially assumed that the boat had not made it into Australia’s migration zone and that its passengers were therefore ineligible to apply for protection visas here. However, it was later revealed, as the passengers were being sent to Christmas Island – an excised offshore place – that they had indeed reached the migration zone, defined as the low water mark when the tide is out, or a port area. The Hoa Kiet had entered Port Hedland’s port’s limits – which extend 10 nautical miles out to sea. Immigration minister Ruddock was clearly annoyed at the prospect that the asylum seekers would now have access to the established checks and balances of Australia’s refugee protection determination system. For Ruddock, these were ‘complex, time-consuming and expensive arrangements.’ Notwithstanding the change in the legal situation, the government insisted that the group should continue to be removed to Christmas Island as a show that asylum seekers would not be allowed to make it to the Australian mainland. The Hoa Kiet passengers, when assessed by immigration department officials, were denied protection as refugees. However, when they appealed these negative decisions – which they were entitled to do because they had escaped the excised zone – the entire group was found to be genuine refugees after all. Most had been detained for more than two years.
From Port Hedland, we set out for Broome. Not far into the trip, we blew a trailer tyre. We drove into the evening, setting up camp a couple of hours from Broome.