Indonesia is investigating claims that Australia paid people smugglers to turn their boat back to Indonesian waters in a development which, if proved, it would consider “very concerning”.The probe came after reports emerged that an Australian border protection official allegedly paid the captain and crew of a boat carrying about 65 asylum seekers about US$30,000 ($39,000) to turn back to Indonesia in late May.
“We are currently investigating this. If this is true, it is very concerning,” an Indonesian foreign affairs ministry spokesman, Arrmanatha Nasir, told the Guardian on Thursday, adding that the information was based on initial interviews with migrants on the boat and one crew member.
Nasir said Indonesia would consider further action if the claim was proven true, including lodging a protest note with Australia or summoning its diplomats in Jakarta.
Peter Dutton invokes ‘on-water’ secrecy over claim of payments to boat crew
The captain and five crew of the boat, which was carrying migrants from Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka, told local Indonesian police they were each paid US$5,000 to turn back to Indonesia, Agence France-Presse reported.
The migrants – which include women and children – came ashore on the remote island of Rote, in eastern Indonesia, in late May, after they were intercepted en route to New Zealand by the Australian navy.
The claims about the payments were aired in reports by Radio New Zealand and Fairfax Media this week.
Rote’s police chief, Hidayat, who goes by one name, was quoted by Fairfax as saying the cash “was in $100 bank notes” and wrapped in six black plastic bags.
“I saw the money with my own eyes,” he was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse. “This is the first time I’d heard Australian authorities making payments to boat crew.”
The migrants have reportedly supported the claims, but the Guardian has been unable to verify the allegations independently.
The Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said on Thursday the claims had not been substantiated. But he did not provide more details, saying the government has a policy of not commenting on operational matters.
“There’s obviously, particularly in relation to this venture, there’s still discussions of an operational matter, of an operational nature going on, so we don’t comment in relation to any of these,” Dutton said in an interview with 2GB radio.
“I think it’s fair to say that Indonesian police officers sort of recanted a bit from some of those comments in the last 24 hours or so, but the customs border protection officers do an amazing job. They do it in difficult circumstances at sea and our objective is to try and make sure we can stop these boats, but in relation to operational matters we just don’t comment.”
Dutton’s remarks were his most expansive on the matter.
The minister simply answered “no” when asked at a media conference on Tuesday whether officials had “recently” paid the crew and captain of a boat carrying asylum seekers. When asked the broader follow-up question – “Has Australia ever done that?” – Dutton said: “It’s been a longstanding policy of the government not to comment on on-water matters.”
The Coalition has introduced harsh immigration measures, including a boat turn-back policy, to stop the influx of asylum seekers who often made a perilous sea journey to escape political persecution or poverty.
The hardline policies – and the secrecy that surrounds boat turn-backs – are a regular topic of political debate in Australia, but the government argues its stance has popular support and has prevented boats arriving.
Labor and the Greens called on the government on Wednesday to be straightforward when answering questions about the payment allegations.
Fairfax Media reported that three officers from the Australian federal police (AFP) were due to visit Rote on Thursday, based on comments by Ronaldzi Agus, a spokesman for the East Nusa Tenggara provincial police office.
An AFP spokesman, when asked whether the officers would inquire about the payment claims, told the Guardian: “The AFP works cooperatively with the Indonesian national police on a range of transnational crime issues, including people smuggling.”
The relationship between Jakarta and Canberra has come under strain in recent months after Indonesia executed two Australians who were members of the Bali Nine drug-smuggling group. Australia recalled its ambassador, Paul Grigson, from Jakarta after the deaths in late April. Grigson returned to Jakarta on Monday.