Australian PM dogged by smuggler payment allegations


Indonesia still awaits reponse to allegations that Australian navy official paid migrant boat to return to Indonesian shores

By Recep Sakar

MELBOURNE – Australian officials were again dogged by allegations Sunday that the country paid people smugglers to steer a craft away from its shores.

Meanwhile, Indonesia – where the migrants then arrived – continued to await a response to the accusations that each of the boat’s crew recieved $5000.

In Canberra, Prime Minister Tony Abbott would only respond to reporters’ questions by again attempting to underline that his government was prepared to do whatever necessary to stop the trafficking.”

The only question that matters is, is this government prepared to do what’s necessary to keep the boats stopped?” he said.

“The answer is yes.”

Asked whether he believed it mattered if Australia was paying off smugglers, he responded: “What I am saying is that we keep the boats stopped.”

“That’s the important thing. We will do whatever is reasonably necessary consistent with the principles of a decent and humane society to keep the boats stopped. That’s what we will do.”

He has not previously not denied the allegations, replying – without wanting “to go into details” – that “the Australian government will do whatever we need to do to keep this evil trade [people trafficking] stopped.”

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton had said Sunday that he would not comment on the alleged operation, while Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Education Minister Christopher Pyne were reported to have deflected all questions.

Since the allegations were initially reported by the Herald June 10, the United Nations has interviewed asylum seekers on board the boats who claim to have witnessed the handover of thousands of dollars by an Australian navy representative on condition the crew return the vessel to Indonesia.

Indonesia has said it has received information claiming that two boats carrying six crew and 65 migrants — Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Rohingya Muslims (reported to include a pregnant woman and children) — were bribed to leave Australian waters in May.

The boats were reported to be on their way to New Zeland.
 Jakarta is carrying out its own investigation into the allegations.

“The information we got was that each of the crew was paid $5000 [to leave],” Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir has told Anadolu Agency.”

We will decide further action depending on the investigation result. If it’s true, it is of great concern,” he added.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Director James Lynch has said that they had also interviewed the 65 passengers and they had said that the crew received a payment.

He also said that the asylum seekers also claimed they were held on an Australian customs vessel for four days before being put on two blue boats and returned to Indonesia.

“What we were told — this is unconfirmed — but what we were told by the 65 passengers is that they were intercepted by a naval vessel from Australia,” said Lynch, the ABC reported Sunday.

“And then they were transferred to a Customs boat where they spent four days. And then they were put on two blue boats and then sent back to Indonesia.”

The opposition Labor’s immigration spokesman Richard Marles has also called for an investigation into the allegations.

“It is no small matter here, this is clearly now having an impact on our relationship with Indonesia, that the Foreign Minister of Indonesia has raised this with our Ambassador to Indonesia, just highlights the fact it is on their mind,” he told ABC’s Insiders show.

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it has asked the Australian ambassador for a response to the allegations.

Ambassador Paul Grigson has only just returned to Jakarta after being recalled by Canberra five weeks ago to express its anger over the execution of Bali nine duo, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters Saturday that he had asked Grigson “directly” because we “have big concerns about it.”

“I have not yet received an answer. The Australian ambassador will take my question to Canberra,” he added, according to local Metro TV.

Indonesian presidential adviser Hikmahanto Juwana has told Anadolu Agency that should Australia’s actions be found to be true they could be seen as an “unfriendly” act between nations.”

Any effort to encourage illegal migrants to travel to this country is troubling,” the professor of international law at Universitas Indonesia said.

“Indonesia must deliver the strongest protest,” he added.

He underlined that if Australia had paid the smugglers to return it would have contravened the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which it is a signatory.

The Convention relates to the Status of Refugees, and is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of signature states.