Australian officials allegedly paid the crew of a people-smuggling boat en route to New Zealand to turn back to Indonesia, according to an Indonesian police chief.
Hidayat, police chief on the island of Rote in eastern Indonesia, where the 65 people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar swam to shore in late May, told media the crew said they were each given USD5,000 by Australian customs officials.
The six seafarers were apprehended upon reaching Rote on people-smuggling offences.
Hidayat told Fairfax media the captain reported that he was given money by an Australian customs officer who spoke fluent Indonesian and introduced himself as Agus. Other crew also said they were paid.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has denied the claims. However, in a letter to the New Zealand government, the 65 migrants corroborated the story.
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The asylum seekers alleged Australian Customs transferred them to an Australian vessel and detained them before putting them on two small vessels for the return journey. Some swam ashore after their boat hit rocks near Landuti Island in the West Rote district of Indonesia, 500 km northeast of the Australian coast, Fairfax media reported.
This is the first such allegation printed in the Australian media. However, in an interview with IHS Maritime in Jakarta in 2014, international law professor Hikmahanto Juwana said an Indonesian coast guard also reported that Australia paid the Indonesian Maritime Safety officials to take asylum seekers back, but he had been unable to corroborate the report.
Don Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, told IHS Maritime the only plausible explanation was Australia and Indonesia were working on a joint counter-people smuggling operation. However, he agreed that any cash amounts paid would need to be accountable.
Australia’s policy of forcing migrants back to Indonesia has been condemned internationally. In May last year the United Nations said the tow-back operations were in breach of Australia’s obligations as a signatory of the 1951 (Refugee) Convention and the 1967 protocol. In April 2013, a major diplomatic row broke out when Australia was found to have breached Indonesian waters and sovereignty during a tow-back operation.