Oz sidesteps charge that of­fi­cials paid mi­grant boat


Australia’s prime min­is­ter on Fri­day sidestepped charges that of­fi­cials from his coun­try paid the crew of a boat car­ry­ing 65 mi­grants to re­turn to In­done­sian wa­ters, but said Australia had to be cre­ative to stop the flow of boats car­ry­ing asy­lum seek­ers to its shores.

Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott’s com­ments come one day af­ter In­done­sia’s For­eign Min­istry said it was “very con­cerned” by the al­le­ga­tions that Australia had paid off the crew of the boat, which had sev­eral chil­dren and a preg­nant woman on board, to re­turn to In­done­sia.

Po­lice in In­done­sia’s East Nusa Teng­gara prov­ince said the boat’s cap­tain and five crew mem­bers de­tained on re­mote Rote is­land said they were each paid US$ 5,000 af­ter be­ing in­ter­cepted by an Aus­tralian navy ship on May 20.

For­eign Min­istry spokesman Ar­rmanatha Nasir said the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment was con­cerned that if such pay­ments were hap­pen­ing, they could en­cour­age hu­man traf­fick­ing.

Australia has a pol­icy of turn­ing back and re­fus­ing to re­set­tle any mi­grant who ar­rives on its shores by boat. Mi­grants es­cap­ing poverty or op­pres­sion use In­done­sia as a tran­sit point for the per­ilous jour­ney in of­ten barely sea­wor­thy ves­sels to Australia.

Ab­bott ‘ Dodg­ing’

Ab­bott did not deny the al­le­ga­tion when ques­tioned on Ra­dio 3AW on Fri­day. He said Australia’s bor­der pro­tec­tion of­fi­cials have been “in­cred­i­bly cre­ative” in com­ing up with strate­gies to stop peo­ple smug­gling.

“By hook or by crook we are gonna stop the trade,” Ab­bott said. “We have stopped the trade and we will do what we have to do to en­sure that it stays stopped.”

Ab­bott again dodged ques­tions about the al­le­ga­tions dur­ing a sub­se­quent press con­fer­ence. Asked di­rectly whether t he gov­ern­ment had paid peo­ple smug­glers to turn back boats, he replied, “What the gov­ern­ment has done is stop the boats.... And we’ve used a whole range of mea­sures to stop the boats be­cause that’s what the Aus­tralian peo­ple elected us to do.”

Australia’s op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers jumped on the con­tro­versy, ac­cus­ing the gov­ern­ment of cre­at­ing an in­cen­tive for peo­ple smug­glers.

“( Peo­ple smug­glers) should be fac­ing pros­e­cu­tion with the full force of the law, not be put in a sit­u­a­tion that when they turn up aside an Aus­tralian Navy ves­sel, they are in ef­fect next to a float­ing ATM,” said Richard Mar­les, im­mi­gra­tion spokesman for the op­po­si­tion La­bor Party.

The al­le­ga­tion comes as Southeast Asia, mean­while, is em­broiled in a broader mi­grant cri­sis as Ro­hingya Mus­lims flee­ing per­se­cu­tion in pre­dom­i­nantly Bud­dhist Myan­mar and Bangladeshis look­ing for a bet­ter life abroad have landed in Thai­land, Malaysia and In­done­sia.

Po­lice said the boat was car­ry­ing 65 mi­grants, mainly from Sri Lanka and a fewer num­ber from Bangladesh, and was at­tempt­ing to reach New Zealand.

Ac­cord­ing to the ac­count given to po­lice by the de­tained crew, their ves­sel was boarded off Christ­mas Is­land in Aus­tralian wa­ters by a navy of­fi­cer who spoke In­done­sian and ne­go­ti­ated their re­turn to In­done­sian ter­ri­tory. Aus­tralian au­thor­i­ties pro­vided two dif­fer­ent boats along with enough fuel and food to re­turn to In­done­sian wa­ters, the crew said, ac­cord­ing to po­lice.

Christ­mas Is­land is 1,090 kilo­me­ters ( 675 miles) south­west of Rote is­land in cen­tral In­done­sia.

Hi­dayat, a lo­cal po­lice chief on Rote, said the mi­grants came ashore on May 31 af­ter lo­cals re­ported the boats stranded in nearby wa­ters. They were taken to an im­mi­gra­tion detention cen­ter in the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Ku­pang on Tues­day.

“I saw the money and even counted it to­gether with the crew dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion,” said Hi­dayat, who uses one name. “But I don’t want to spec­u­late be­fore the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is com­plete.”

Ar­rmanatha, the In­done­sian for­eign min­istry spokesman, said chil­dren in­clud­ing three of a very young age and a preg­nant woman were among the mi­grants.

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