Australian intelligence officials paid people-smugglers thousands of dollars to divert boatloads of migrants out of the country’s waters, a damning report by Amnesty International has alleged.
In its report ‘By Hook or by Crook- Australia’s Abuse of Asylum Seekers at Sea’, Amnesty probes into allegations raised earlier this year that Australian officials forming part of Operation Sovereign Borders paid the smuggler crew of a boat loaded with asylum seekers more than US $30,000 to take the vessel back to Indonesia.
The human rights group has now taken out newspaper advertisements calling for Australia’s Royal Commission to compel witnesses and “get to the bottom of what is happening on the high seas”.
But Amnesty International drew its report from the testimony of crew members and passengers who were intercepted in two separate incidents on May 17 and May 22.
Australian officials are alleged to have intercepted the boats as they were headed for New Zealand.
In the May 22 incident, the boats were escorted to Australian waters, where those on board were transferred to a military vessel taking part in the operation. At that point, the official allegedly paid the smugglers $32,ooo to put everyone back on two smaller boats and directed them back to Indonesia.
When they landed there, Indonesian authorities took the asylum seekers into detention and the crew into police custody.
Amnesty said it interviewed the crew and the passengers at the immigration detention centre in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara and on Rote Island in East Tenggara, where the two groups were held. Their testimonies were said to be “remarkably consistent”.
“New evidence gathered by Amnesty International suggests that Australia’s secretive maritime border control operations now resemble a lawless venture,” Amnesty concluded in its report.
Under the conservative government’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia by boat are turned back or sent to detention camps on Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
They are blocked from resettling on the mainland, even if found to be genuine refugees — a policy that has drawn international criticism, but which Canberra argues saves lives by deterring boat people.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton rejected the report as a “slur” and said Australia would not be “bullied” into changing its policies.
“People on intercepted vessels are held lawfully in secure, safe, humane, and appropriate conditions by the personnel of the Australian Border Force (ABF) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF),” his spokesman said.
“To suggest otherwise, as Amnesty has done, is to cast a slur on the men and women of the ABF and ADF.”
“I think in the end you can take the word of the people-smugglers or you can take the word of our staff at Australian Border Force and people will make their own judgements,” he said.
“We’re not going to be bullied into some watering down of that, because people drown at sea and our detention centres fill.”
“Amnesty International and many others have documented an alarming pattern of abusive and illegal pushbacks by the Australian authorities,” the rights group said.
“Such turnbacks violate the principle of non-refoulement, which says refugees cannot be sent back to countries where they are at risk, and also deny people the right to have their asylum claims assessed.”