Jakarta seeks truth over Oz asy­lum boat ‘pay­ment’

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY OLIVIA RONDONUWU

In­done­sia on Satur­day de­manded an­swers from Australia over al­le­ga­tions an of­fi­cial paid thou­sands of dol­lars to turn back a boat of asy­lum seek­ers, say­ing such a devel­op­ment would mark a “new low.”

The call came af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott on Fri­day re­fused to deny al­le­ga­tions that the cap­tain and five crew of a boat car­ry­ing asy­lum seek­ers were each paid US$5,000 by an Aus­tralian im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cial to re­turn to the Southeast Asian na­tion.

The claims were made to lo­cal po­lice on Rote Is­land in eastern In­done­sia, where the boat car­ry­ing 65 asy­lum seek­ers came ashore late May af­ter be­ing in­ter­cepted by the Aus­tralian Navy.

The es­ca­lat­ing row risks fur­ther dam­ag­ing re­la­tions be­tween Australia and its north­ern neigh­bor, which are al­ready tense af­ter In­done­sia ex­e­cuted two Aus­tralian drug smug­glers by fir­ing squad in April.

In­done­sian for­eign min­istry spokesman Ar­rmanatha Nasir said Jakarta was seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion from Australia on the is­sue.

“We have con­sis­tently said that the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment’s push- back pol­icy is on a slip­pery slope,” he told AFP, re­fer­ring to the Ab­bott ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hard- line pol­icy of turn­ing back asy­lum boats when it is safe to do so.

“If this lat­est in­ci­dent is con­firmed, this will be a new low for the way that the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment is han­dling this is­sue.”

For­eign Min­is­ter Retno Mar­sudi also raised the is­sue Satur­day on the side­lines of a con­fer­ence in Jakarta with Australia’s am­bas­sador to In­done­sia, Paul Grig­son, adding Jakarta would be “re­ally con­cerned” if the claims were true.

“I just asked him ‘What is it about, tell me, what is it?’” she told re­porters at the event.

“He promised to take my ques­tion, my in­quiry, to Can­berra and he promised to get back to me again.”

Grig­son re­turned to Jakarta only re­cently af­ter be­ing re­called by Australia in an act of protest

against the ex­e­cu­tions.

‘By hook or by crook’

In­done­sian au­thor­i­ties have launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­leged pay­ments to the crew of the boat car­ry­ing asy­lum seek­ers from Bangladesh, Myan­mar and Sri Lanka, which was in­ter­cepted en route to New Zealand.

Ab­bott on Fri­day said Australia would do “what­ever we need” to com­bat peo­ple smug­gling — but re­peat­edly re­fused to deny that a pay­ment was made.

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

Can­berra has em­barked on a tough im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy since Ab­bott’s con­ser­va­tive coali­tion came into power in Septem­ber 2013 and re­fuses to ac­cept asy­lum seek­ers ar­riv­ing by boats.

The pol­icy in­cludes mil­i­taryled ef­forts to turn back such boats, which mostly come from In­done­sia, and send­ing asy­lum seek­ers to camps on the Pa­cific is­land out­post of Nauru and Pa­pua New Guinea for re­set­tle­ment de­spite strong crit­i­cism from hu­man rights groups.

Australia has also signed a deal with im­pov­er­ished Cam­bo­dia to ac­cept un­wanted refugees in re­turn for mil­lions of dol­lars in aid over the next 4 years.

Ab­bott and his min­is­ters in­sist the hard-line pol­icy has saved the lives of asy­lum seek­ers.

Only one boat with asy­lum seek­ers has reached the Aus­tralian main­land since De­cem­ber 2013. Be­fore the pol­icy was in­tro­duced, boats were ar­riv­ing al­most daily with hun­dreds of peo­ple drown­ing en route.

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