Rights groups and opposition politicians say allegations that Australian border officials paid human-smugglers thousands of dollars to abandon their journey have damaged the nation's credibility.
According to Indonesian police, the captain of a human-smuggling boat said Australian border personnel paid him and his crew thousands of dollars to turn their vessel around and return to Indonesia.
An Australian navy vessel had intercepted the smugglers’ boat off Java on May 20 while it was carrying 65 passengers, largely from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They were reported to be attempting to reach New Zealand.
Police in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province said the captain and his crew of five were each paid about $3,800 ($5,000 Australian dollars) to turn the ship back. The boat later crashed into a remote island reef. An Indonesian government spokesman said Indonesia would investigate the allegations.
Both Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton denied the reports. But Prime Minister Tony Abbott, speaking on Australian commercial radio Friday, refused to address the claims of payments to the captain and crew.
“We don’t comment on operational matters, but we are determined to ensure that illegal boats don’t get to Australia," he said. "What we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook. I’m just not going to get into hypotheticals. The important thing is that we stop the boats.”
Australia’s policy has been to prevent boats from reaching Australia’s shores and to discourage potential migrants from attempting the journey. Authorities are sending would-be asylum-seekers to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for long-term detention.
The hard-line policy has led to criticism from the political opposition and rights groups, but the allegation of payments to smugglers has led to charges of Australia being in breach of International law.
Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young criticized Abbott’s failure to address the accusations.
“The fact that the prime minister wouldn’t rule out that the Australian officials have paid thousands of dollars to individuals crewing an asylum-seeker boat to bribe them to take it back to Indonesia — if it’s true, it’s extraordinary and unprecedented," she said. "It makes you wonder really how bad things have been out on the high seas.”
At a recent conference in Bangkok on illegal movement of people in Southeast Asia, Australia’s representative called for a regional solution to the issue of the smuggling and trafficking of people.
Human Rights Watch's Australian representative, Elaine Pearson, said Abbott’s failure to deny the payment claims was "disturbing."
“It’s extremely damaging for Australia’s credibility in the region," she said. "Engaging in these kinds of unilateral actions of pushing boats back to Indonesia, or indeed paying people-smugglers to return people, shows Australia isn’t interested in measures that would be a regional approach.”
In recent months, Southeast Asia has been grappling with a flood of largely stateless Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state who are fleeing persecution, violence and social ostracism.
Thousands of refugees were stranded on boats in the Andaman Sea after a crackdown was launched in Thailand and smugglers abandoned the vessels at sea.
But humanitarian workers told VOA that while there has been a lull in the number of smugglers’ vessels being put to sea, more boats are set to go in the months ahead.