Refugees have repeated claims the Australian Navy paid their boat crew thousands to return them to Indonesia, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott refusing the deny the allegations.
Mr Abbott rebuffed Indonesia’s request for a response to claims Australian officials paid a people-smuggling crew money to turn back to Indonesia.
“There’s really only one thing to say here and that is that we have stopped the boats,” he said.
“That’s good for Australia, it’s good for Indonesia and it’s particularly good for all of those who want to see a better world.”
The regional director of the UN High Commission for Refugees, James Lynch, said 65 asylum seekers confirmed their account that the Navy paid the boat crew.
“The boat that was rescued by the Indonesian navy on 31 May – we have interviewed the 65 passengers and they have said that the crew received a payment,” Mr Lynch told the BBC.
He said the passengers spent four days on a Navy boat before being put onto two other boats and sent to Indonesia.
The crew was arrested by the Indonesian Navy and told officers they had each been paid $5000 to turn back, the BBC reported.
Indonesian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said the claims, if true, mark “a new low” in the relationship on asylum seeker turn-backs, which he characterised as “on a slippery slope”.
“We have consistently said that the Australian government’s push-back policy is on a slippery slope,” he told AFP, referring to the Abbott administration’s hard-line policy of turning back asylum boats when it is safe to do so.
“If this latest incident is confirmed, this will be a new low for the way that the Australian government is handling this issue.”
Pressure is growing on the government to explain what happened in the alleged pay off, as Indonesian police have confirmed they have also heard the same story of Australians paying people smugglers to head to Indonesia.
The Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has approached Australian ambassador Paul Grigson to seek an explanation.
“I just asked him what is it about, tell me what is it about,” she told reporters.
“He promised to take my inquiry, my questions, to Canberra and he promised to get back to me again.”
The Opposition’s Immigration Spokesman Richard Marles has called on the government to answer Indonesia’s question.
“But we shouldn’t be waiting for the Indonesians to do this investigation, we should be hearing from our own government about what exactly happened,” he told ABC’s Insiders program.
“Why on earth you would be trying to create a pull factor of this kind, giving people smugglers the sense that if they turn up next to an Australian Navy vessel there is half a chance they’re going to be given some Australian taxpayer-funded money, this is ridiculous if that’s what’s ultimately occurred.
“It is no small matter here — this is clearly now having an impact on our relationship with Indonesia,” he said.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Sunday also refused to comment on the claims after denying the allegations last week.
“The Government will always do the right thing by the Australian people,” he said.
“We will act within the law, we will act within our international obligations, but from day one we have not commented on specific operations.
“We provide details at a time which is operationally appropriate.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop last week rejected the claim, and MP Philip Ruddock said the allegations had not been proven.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Sky News the Prime Minister’s refusal to comment had been misinterpreted.
“Questions in relation to specific operation matters are answered as appropriate by the Minister for Immigration, Minister Dutton, and he of course has done so on this occasion,” Mr Cormann said.
“I mean this proposition that somehow the Prime Minister has refused to deny and that somehow this is translated into payments have been made is just wrong.”
– with ABC