ROTE NDAO, INDONESIA - The captain of a people-smuggling boat who says he was paid by Australian authorities to return the migrants to Indonesia has described a terrifying ordeal on the voyage back.
The Indonesian captain, Johanes Humiang, said in an interview that his boat was seized by Australian authorities, who after interrogations and the offer of money transferred the crew and 65 migrants to two smaller vessels with insufficient fuel and food.
The allegation of payments to people smugglers has strained relations between Indonesia and Australia, which has a policy of turning back migrants who arrive by boat. Migrants escaping poverty or oppression use Indonesia as a transit point for the perilous journey in often barely seaworthy vessels to Australia.
Humiang, who is being held by Indonesian police on Rote island in central Indonesia, said there was an "emergency" at sea after one of the boats provided by Australia ran out fuel, causing panic among the mostly Sri Lankan migrants. The voyage continued after the crew transferred the people to the second boat.
"The fuel was not enough," he said in the interview Wednesday. "We had to complete our journey back to Indonesia with a single boat and finally stranded."
"The migrants started fighting," Humiang said. "The situation changed drastically and was frightening. I thought they would kill each other."
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has sidestepped questions about the May incident. He has said Australian authorities are being "incredibly creative" in their response to human trafficking. Indonesian officials say payments to people smugglers would amount to bribery and could encourage trafficking.
The initial report from police said the captain and five crew members were paid a total of about $30,000. Steven Ivan Worotijan, a crew member who was also interviewed Wednesday, said the total was $31,000, with the captain receiving $6,000 from an Australian navy officer who identified himself as Agus and each of the crew $5,000.
Humiang said the money paid to him and the crew was double what they would have earned if their boat wasn't intercepted.
The migrant boat set out from a village in the Cisarua sub-district of West Java province and was intercepted by an Australian navy patrol ship after sailing for 20 days, according to Humiang. Police say the date of the interception was May 20, based on their interviews with the crew.
Australia's hardline stance on boat people has reduced the number of migrants attempting to reach its shores by sea and is popular with the Australian public, giving the conservative ruling party a rare policy triumph. Australian media reports citing a government document say a policy of paying people smugglers to return migrants has been in place for four years.
"During the interrogation, the Australian authorities offered us the money," Humiang said. "We were very surprised to see a pile of American dollars on the table in front of our eyes. They asked us to bring back the migrants with us and the money will be ours."
Two of the migrants in interviews with Indonesian television have said they witnessed the money being handed over to the crew.