Did Australian officials pay smugglers to remove Asian asylum seekers?

Amnesty International released a report Wednesday that claims Australian border officials may have violated people-smuggling laws by paying smugglers to return asylum seekers to Indonesia in May.

Byron Kaye/Reuters
Police scuffle with protesters outside the site of the annual general meeting of Transfield Services in Sydney, October 28, 2015. The company running Australia's offshore immigration detention camps rejected on Wednesday suggestions its staff were involved in rights abuses on isolated Pacific islands as the United Nations stepped up criticism of the facilities.

For months the Australian government has denied accusations that it committed a transnational people smuggling crime, but new evidence released Wednesday by human rights organization, Amnesty International, claims government officials paid smugglers to reroute Asian asylum seekers.

In May, a boat left Ratu Island, Indonesia bound for New Zealand, carrying 65 Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, and Burmese asylum seekers. The boat was intercepted by Australian Border Force (ABF) and Defence Force personnel who claimed the boat was in distress.

But crew members and passengers interviewed by Amnesty International say the boat was never in trouble.

Most of the passengers boarded an ABF vessel, where they were kept in cells for about a week before being transferred to two smaller boats supplied by Australian officials, Amnesty claims. The crew members of the original boat were paid a total of $32,000 to return to Ratu Island and were given a map and specific instructions for landing points in order to evade Indonesian border officials. As Amnesty International concludes, this “amounts to illegal entry within the terms of the Smuggling Protocol.”

“All of the available evidence points to Australian officials having committed a transnational crime by, in effect, directing a people-smuggling operation, paying a boat crew, and then instructing them on exactly what to do and where to land in Indonesia,”  Anna Shea, refugee researcher at Amnesty International said in a statement. “People-smuggling is a crime usually associated with private individuals, not governments – but here we have strong evidence that Australian officials are not just involved, but directing operations.”

Evidence includes direct testimony from the passengers, crew members, and Indonesian police officials who rescued the boat near Rote Island after it struck a reef. Passengers also had photo and video footage of the boats and conditions and Indonesian police confirmed $32,000 confiscated from the crew members.

Amnesty International is also investigating a second instance in July when Australian officials are accused of paying off another boat carrying refugees, but there is not significant evidence as of yet.

“When it comes to its treatment of those seeking asylum, Australia is becoming a lawless state,” said Ms. Shea at Amnesty International.

Australian officials, however dispute Amnesty International's claims. 

"To suggest otherwise, as Amnesty has done, is to cast a slur on the men and women of the ABF and ADF," a spokesperson for Australia's Minister for Immigration and Border Protection told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

People on intercepted vessels are "held lawfully in secure, safe, humane, and appropriate conditions," a government spokeswoman told Reuters.

This is not, however, the first time Australia has been accused of taking its hardline immigration policy too far.

Last year, Australia signed an agreement with Cambodia that would allow refugees held in an Australian-run detention camp on Nauru island to be relocated to Cambodia. Costing more than 10 million Australian dollars a year, the deal signified Australia’s commitment to barring boat-arriving refugees.

In a document given to the camp refugees, Australian officials outlined benefits to be given to the first group to volunteer to go to Cambodia, including job assistance, paid-for accommodations, and a bank account, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

"Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future," the document said. "If you are not in the first group of refugees to settle in Cambodia, your assistance package will be different."

Some human-rights organizations criticized the move, but the International Organization for Migration appeared to be in support and offered full assistance to refugees wanting to go to Cambodia.

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