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Australian officials paid asylum seeker boat crew, Amnesty investigation alleges
The Guardian (Australia) - October 28, 2015
In May this year, the 65 passengers and six crew of an asylum seeker boat bound for New Zealand said they were intercepted by an Australian naval ship and an Australian Border Force vessel in international waters.
Australian government officials on board reportedly paid the crew of the vessel $32,000 – in US $100 bills – and instructed them to return the asylum seekers to Indonesia, directing them to Rote Island.
After interviewing all 65 passengers who were on board the ship, as well as the six crew and Indonesian officials, the Amnesty report press release concluded "all of the available evidence points to Australian officials having committed a transnational crime".
On Thursday the immigration minister Peter Dutton said the government had already rejected the report's allegations. "To suggest otherwise, as Amnesty has done, is to cast a slur on the men and women of the Australian Border Force and Australian Defence Force."
Anna Shea, a researcher on refugee and migrant rights with Amnesty UK, said evidence showed government officials were allegedly paying a boat crew, providing fuel and materiel, and giving instructions on where the boat should be sailed.
"People smuggling is a crime usually associated with private individuals, not governments – but here we have allegations that Australian officials are not just involved, but directing operations. When it comes to its treatment of those seeking asylum, Australia is becoming a lawless state."
Australian officials reportedly intercepted the asylum seeker boat twice, on 17 May and 22 May. Those on board said the ship was well-equipped and that no distress signal was sent at any time. The crew said the boat never entered Australian waters and had enough food and fuel on board to reach New Zealand.
In the second interdiction, the majority of asylum seekers boarded the Australian Border Force ship after allegedly being told they could bathe on board.
Once on board, however, they said they were held in cells for several days, before they were transferred to two smaller boats and instructed to sail for the island of Rote. One boat ran out of fuel, forcing all of its passengers onto the other. That boat foundered on a reef at Landu Island, near Rote, from where locals rescued the passengers.
On the original boat, the six crew claimed Australian officials gave them $32,000 – two of the men received $6,000, four $5,000 – in exchange for the crew agreeing to pilot the boat back to Indonesia.
One asylum seeker told Amnesty he allegedly witnessed a transaction between Australian officials and the ship's captain in the kitchen of the boat, and saw the captain put a white envelope in his shorts pocket.
Shea told the Guardian the 62 passengers from the vessel were interviewed, as a group, on three separate occasions in Indonesian immigration detention in Kupang in West Timor, where they are currently being held.
The six crew, who are in police custody on Rote Island, were interviewed separately to the passengers. "What was really remarkable was the degree of correlation and consistency in the testimony of the asylum seekers and the crew, who were held in different locations, and who were not in communication," Shea said.
Indonesian police have reported they found $32,000 is US $100 bills on the crew. Amnesty researchers photographed the money confiscated.
After initially refusing to comment on the allegations, citing secrecy over "on-water matters", the Australian government denied making payments to people smugglers, and said Australian officials acted to save life at sea.
Questioned about the allegation, the then prime minister Tony Abbott said: "There's really only one thing to say here and that is that we have stopped the boats."
The boat turnback is the subject of a Senate inquiry, due to report in January next year. In its submission, Operation Sovereign Borders' joint action taskforce stated the asylum seeker vessel was observed "in poor weather conditions, which were rapidly deteriorating".
"The master of the vessel indicated they were experiencing difficulty and requested assistance. Border Protection Command assets rendered immediate assistance in accordance with our international safety at [sic] life at sea obligations and assisted the safe return of the people to Indonesia," Major General Andrew Bottrell wrote to the inquiry.
"I believe our actions to assist this vessel were necessary to preserve the safety of life of those on board. The officers on board the Border Protection Command vessels operated in dangerous sea conditions to render assistance to the distressed vessel."
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has consistently maintained all elements of Operation Sovereign Borders were "conducted consistent with Australian domestic law and Australia's obligations under international law".
The Indonesian government has said it believes Australia paid the ship's crew. "We asked for clarification and for further information on this issue," a foreign ministry spokesman, Arrmanatha Nasir, said. "We did not receive this, so in that context we cannot be blamed for believing that there was an illicit payment."
The Amnesty report also investigated an incident in July where a second payment to crew may have been made.
Asylum seekers on board that boat reported that after being interdicted by Australian vessels and put onto a new boat, the crew were in possession of two new bags, which they were warned repeatedly not to open. That new boat, piloted by the crew under instruction from Australia, was also returned to Rote.
The Guardian revealed in March Australia has a multimillion-dollar contract with a Vietnamese ship-builder to manufacture fishing boat-style vessels to be used to return asylum seekers to their countries of departure, usually Indonesia or Sri Lanka.
Amnesty argues Australia's boat turnback policy is a breach of the country's non-refoulement obligations under the Refugees Convention, which requires Australia not to return a refugee to a place where their life or liberty could be threatened.
In London on Tuesday, Abbott – since deposed as prime minister – said Europe would be fundamentally weakened by the "misguided altruism" of failing to stop the flow of migrants across its borders.
"The imperative to 'love your neighbour as you love yourself' is at the heart of every Western polity... it's what makes us decent and humane countries as well as prosperous ones. But – right now – this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error."