October 29. 2015 | the guardian
Australian government officials may have engaged in people smuggling, by allegedly paying the crew of an asylum seeker boat to return its passengers to Indonesia, an Amnesty International investigation has found.
In May this year, the 65 passengers and six crew of an asylum seeker boat bound for New Zealand said they were intercepted by an Australian naval ship and an Australian Border Force vessel in international waters.
Australian government officials on board reportedly paid the crew of the vessel $32,000 – in US $100 bills – and instructed them to return the asylum seekers to Indonesia, directing them to Rote Island.
After interviewing all 65 passengers who were on board the ship, as well as the six crew and Indonesian officials, the Amnesty report press release concluded “all of the available evidence points to Australian officials having committed a transnational crime”.
On Thursday the immigration minister Peter Dutton said the government had already rejected the report’s allegations.
“To suggest otherwise, as Amnesty has done, is to cast a slur on the men and women of the Australian Border Force and Australian Defence Force.”
Anna Shea, a researcher on refugee and migrant rights with Amnesty UK, said evidence showed government officials were allegedly paying a boat crew, providing fuel and materiel, and giving instructions on where the boat should be sailed.
“People smuggling is a crime usually associated with private individuals, not governments – but here we have allegations that Australian officials are not just involved, but directing operations.
“When it comes to its treatment of those seeking asylum, Australia is becoming a lawless state.”
Australian officials reportedly intercepted the asylum seeker boat twice, on 17 May and 22 May.
Those on board said the ship was well-equipped and that no distress signal was sent at any time. The crew said the boat never entered Australian waters and had enough food and fuel on board to reach New Zealand.
In the second interdiction, the majority of asylum seekers boarded the Australian Border Force ship after allegedly being told they could bathe on board.
Once on board, however, they said they were held in cells for several days, before they were transferred to two smaller boats and instructed to sail for the island of Rote. One boat ran out of fuel, forcing all of its passengers onto the other. That boat foundered on a reef at Landu Island, near Rote, from where locals rescued the passengers.
On the original boat, the six crew claimed Australian officials gave them $32,000 – two of the men received $6,000, four $5,000 – in exchange for the crew agreeing to pilot the boat back to Indonesia.
One asylum seeker told Amnesty he allegedly witnessed a transaction between Australian officials and the ship’s captain in the kitchen of the boat, and saw the captain put a white envelope in his shorts pocket.
Shea told the Guardian the 62 passengers from the vessel were interviewed, as a group, on three separate occasions in Indonesian immigration detention in Kupang in West Timor, where they are currently being held.
The six crew, who are in police custody on Rote Island, were interviewed separately to the passengers.
“What was really remarkable was the degree of correlation and consistency in the testimony of the asylum seekers and the crew, who were held in different locations, and who were not in communication,” Shea said.
Indonesian police have reported they found $32,000 is US $100 bills on the crew. Amnesty researchers photographed the money confiscated.