Officials Allegedly Paid People Smugglers $30,000 To Turn Back Boats

In today’s news about Australia’s controversial asylum seeker policy, it has emerged that Australian officials allegedly paid people smugglers to turn back their boats, according to the Indonesian police chief who arrested them.

Police chief on Rote Island, Indonesia, Mr Hidayat, said that Australian officials gave the six crew members on board 5,000 USD in $100 banknotes each, amounting to 30,000 USD in total.

The boat was carrying 65 asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar from Rote Island to New Zealand when it was intercepted by the Australian navy in late May.

At the time, Mr Hidayat was reported as saying: “[The refugees] look exhausted. One female passenger is pregnant – we took her immediately to the hospital but she is ok now.”

He also said that “the Australians provided them with food, drinks, and sufficient fuel to reach Indonesian land.”

However, this appears to have been the bare minimum needed for a safe arrival. A letter to the New Zealand government, signed by all 65 asylum seekers on board, descirbes the harrowing conditions they were sent back in:

“Then they take away our better boat and give two small boats that had just a little dry food like biscuits and chocolates, and they also give very little fuel, just 200 litres for four to five hour journey.”

The boat ending up hitting rocks near Landuti Island in the West Rote district of Indonesia, forcing the asylum seekers to swim ashore.

It appears that the crew were originally reluctant to return to Rote for fear they would be arrested, but after meeting with Australian officials “looked happy” to be returning. According to a Bangladeshi refugee on board, Nazmul Hassan, the captain said: “We have to go back. Australia want (sic) to pay for us.”

They were arrested upon arrival in Rote, and processed for people-smuggling offences. 

However, Mr Hidayat did not confiscate the money upon their arrest, instead sending it to the crew’s families. He justified his actions by claiming the money was not crime related, and explaining that boat crews are usually very poor.

Thanks to the Federal government’s policy of not commenting on “on-water matters”, we probably won’t be getting an official statement from them anytime soon. When asked if the story of Australian officials paying people smugglers cash was true, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton replied with a simple “no”, without elaborating further.

If it is true, it will be the first time such an act has happened, according to Former Immigrating Department executive and ANU expert on refugee policies and international immigration, Peter Hughes.

Image via Getty Images News on June 22, 2012

via Fairfax