June 11, 2015 | smh
Australian officials paid thousands of dollars to the captain and crew of a boat carrying asylum seekers, who were then returned to Indonesia, according to passengers and an Indonesian police chief.
Sixty-five people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, who were seeking asylum in New Zealand, had their boat intercepted by Australian navy and Customs officials in late May, and were then returned to the island of Rote.
The Indonesian police chief on Rote, Hidayat, said the six crew members said they had been given $US5000 each by Australian officials. The crew were apprehended when they arrived at Rote and are being processed for people-smuggling offences.
Mr Hidayat said the captain, Yohanes, told him they had been given the money by an Australian customs officer called Agus, who spoke fluent Indonesian. The other crew members had corroborated Yohanes’ story.
“I saw the money, the $5000 was in $100 banknotes,” he said. The crew had $30,000 in total, which was wrapped in six black plastic bags, he said.
When asked on Tuesday whether Australian officials had recently paid the crew of a boat carrying asylum seekers to stay away from Australia, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton simply said, “No.”
He refused to answer follow-up questions, citing the government’s policy of not commenting on “on-water matters”.
A letter to the New Zealand government signed by all 65 asylum seekers on board says Australian officials paid the six crew members at least $A7000 each.
“Then they take away our better boat and give two small boats that had just a little dry foods like biscuits and chocolates, and they also give very little fuel, just 200 litres for four to five hour journey,” the letter says.
Nazmul Hassan, a Bangladeshi on board the boat, said he saw the skipper put money in his pocket.
He said the crew initially told Australian officials they couldn’t go back to Indonesia because they could be jailed for people smuggling.
However, after a meeting the captain reportedly said: “We have to go back. Australia want to pay for us.”
“After they finished the meeting, everyone looked happy and they agreed to the proposal,” Mr Hassan said from Inaboi, a hostel in Kupang, Indonesia, where the asylum seekers are being detained.
“We didn’t say anything because they didn’t give us time to talk.”
The asylum seekers swam ashore after their boat hit rocks near Landuti island in the West Rote district of Indonesia, 500 kilometres north-east of the Australian coast.
Mr Hidayat said it was the first time he had heard of Australian payments to people smugglers and that he was surprised the crew members had that amount of cash.
“Boat crews are usually very poor,” he said. “I even sent the money to their villages upon their request.”
Mr Hidayat said he had not confiscated the money. “What for? It is not crime-related,” he said.
“I still wonder who Agus is and what is his motivation to give money to boat crews. Maybe he wanted them to go out of Australian border so he gave them the money.”
An Immigration Department spokesman said: “The Australian government does not comment on or disclose operational details where this would prejudice the outcome of current or future operations.”
Former Immigration Department executive Peter Hughes, who now works at the Australian National University as an expert on refugee policies and international migration, said if the payment was true, the move would be unprecedented.
“I have never heard of that happening before,” Mr Hughes said.
In the letter to the New Zealand government, the asylum seekers said they had set off for New Zealand on May 5, after living in Indonesia for a few months.
“Then we hope you [New Zealand] can give asylum and you can also give a peaceful life for us,” the letter says.
It says the boat was intercepted and searched by Australian customs officers on May 17, who warned: “You don’t try to come in Australia and don’t try to use Australia water area also.”
The letter says the navy and Customs returned six days later and removed the captain for a secret six-hour interview.
It says the asylum seekers were then removed from their boat and kept in jail-like conditions on a navy ship for several days.
“Then they separate our six sailors and donated them by giving at least $A7200 per person. They never ask to us any opinions and they also never accept our petition,” the letter says.
On about May 31, they were then given two smaller boats and sent back to Indonesia.
Mr Hassan said Australian authorities had burnt their original boat because it had sufficient supplies for them to continue their journey to New Zealand.
Don Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, said if money had been handed out, it could be interpreted as a form of people smuggling.
However, he questioned the motive of the officials to do it.
Professor Rothwell said it was unlikely to breach any laws under the Migration Act.
“The great significance is how this decision would be seen in regards of our regional neighbours,” he said. “If Australian officials were to pay crews to take those people to Indonesia, I suspect that Indonesia and some other regional neighbours would take a dim view of that conduct from Australia.
“I cannot recall any situation where Australian officials have paid crew.”