SYDNEY — The boat people are landing. Although still just a trickle, the mostly Chinese illegal immigrants look set to flood through the open door named Australia. Nor is it just human cargo being offloaded on these unprotected shores. Heroin from the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia is also being dumped here by the triads of South China.

Just how well-organized this lethal drug trade is — and how vulnerable this target country is proving — became clear recently when the latest illegal arrivals, 60 Chinese, were rounded up in lonely bushland only a few hundred kilometers north of Sydney. The scene at Scotts Head, NSW was straight out of a Keystone Kops movie. Beached on the empty sand, typical of much of Australia’s 37,000 km of coastline, lay an Indonesian rust-bucket. By the time local farmers noticed it and rang the police, the 60 would-be New Australians had scattered in all directions.

Struggling through heavy rain, dressed in smart business suits, they obviously figured they could find Sydney or Melbourne — where they had contact addresses — somewhere “out there.” The sight of “Chinese businessmen” staggering out of the semitropical jungle astonished the locals. One family invited three of them to breakfast — with Chinese tea, of course.

For the rest of Australia, waking to news of yet another lapse in coastal surveillance, it was no laughing matter, however. Not since Japanese midget submarines crept into Sydney Harbor during World War II have older Australians felt quite so vulnerable.

It is only now dawning on easygoing Australians that this island continent is no longer protected by geographic isolation. An unknown number of uninvited immigrants have proven in recent years they can easily outflank the country’s inadequate air and sea surveillance.

Boat people have been arriving here ever since the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Quite a few immigrants from the Middle East have also slipped through the pathetically misnamed “net.” A few months ago, a group of 36 Iraqis claiming asylum were found huddled on a barren coral isle near Darwin, Australia’s northernmost major city.

Drug running is becoming a lucrative sideline to the southbound trade. Not long ago, four smugglers were arrested with 225 kg of cocaine, the largest seizure in Australian history.

Reliable figures are hard to come by. Officially, 2,500 illegals have been deported in recent years; 675 won the the legal right to stay and 230 are still in detention. Almost half are Chinese, 1,000 are Sino-Vietnamese, and the balance come from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Many of these unfortunates have paid up to $40,000 each to make the hazardous sea trip. The “fares” go to professional smugglers, often based in Fuji san and other provinces of southern China. The profits end up in the pockets of Golden Triangle drug barons.

In contrast, Australia is recognized as one of the world’s most receptive havens for those fleeing world trouble spots. Canberra has offered to shelter 4,000 Kosovo refugees, and thousands of Yugoslavs have settled here in recent years. Australia’s 18.7 million-strong population is, in fact, a striking multicultural mix.

But the recent jump in boat sneak-ins is sorely testing Aussie hospitality — partly because of economic strains on domestic resources and partly because of worries about exotic diseases brought in on food.

The latest shock landing, the closest yet to a big city, may galvanize Canberra into erecting a real barrier.

Most Australians doubt whether either the federal Coastwatch service or customs authorities are sufficiently well-equipped, or manned, to know who is sneaking in where. Can we really patrol 37,000 km of coastline, some of it desert, much of it uninhabited? Not with regular sea patrols comprising 14 planes, six boats and a helicopter.

That “navy” has to keep lookout over 9 million sq. km of ocean stretching out as far as 200 nautical miles from land. Every day, Coastwatch is expected to run a dozen routine flights over shipping lanes, plus strategic missions.

Flights from both sides of the continent originate in Port Hedland, a small outpost in the west, and Townsville, in the east, to cover the vulnerable northern half. But recent landings in the southern, more populous half of the country show that the illegals have learned to bypass the north and land closer to the big cities.

Why the new wave of boat people? Sydney University anthropologist Richard Basham says a Canberra crackdown on English-language student visas and business investment visas — a hot source of over-stayers in the past — means more people are risking their lives on these death-trap boats.

Australian police have responded to mounting public criticism by opening offices in Beijing and Hanoi, raising their offshore presence to 30 in 17 bureaus.

“Farcical” is how the federal opposition brands Canberra’s precautions. “Australia is a laughing stock when it comes to border patrol,” said Duncan Kerr, the opposition’s customs spokesman. “Arrogant and incompetent,” say state premiers. Prime Minister John Howard is telling them to stop the political points-scoring. Yet he stops short of upgrading the navy with new ships, planes and personnel.

In desperation, the Customs Service is appealing to the public to act as coast guards. “We need every bit of help we can get,” admitted Customs Service spokesman Leon Bedington.

Real help must start in Canberra. A first step could be tougher laws to expedite the expulsion of illegals proved to have no legal, humanitarian or economic grounds for staying.

Beijing could also help. The triad trade in drugs and people needs to be stopped at source. That process begins with top-level cooperation on an international scale. The trade in human misery recognizes no borders.

Meanwhile, the possible role played by some of the 300,000 ethnic Chinese living here remains a touchy subject. Chinese Australians are good citizens, many families having lived here for a century. Fears that criminals in Asia are subjecting them to a campaign of terror are hard to substantiate. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests there is pressure on them to remain silent or even help the illegal inflow.

Should hard evidence emerge in the current inquiries, Canberra faces tough decisions in its kid-gloves dealings with Beijing.

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