UN backs smugglers pay claim

Government is under pressure to reveal its boat turn-back policy.

The Federal Government is under growing pressure to reveal all about its boat turn-back policy after fresh evidence from the United Nations suggests Australian authorities paid people smugglers to return asylum seekers to Indonesia.

In claims which prompted warnings in Indonesia that relations with Australia are now at a “new low”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees regional director James Lynch said interviews with 65 asylum seekers appeared to back reports of a payment to a people smuggling crew.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton last week denied Australia had paid the crew up to $5000 each to return home, but UN and Indonesian police evidence suggested it took place last month.

Mr Lynch said asylum seekers not only claimed crew were paid but also that the boat people were held for four days on a Customs vessel before being returned to Indonesia.

“The boat that was rescued by the Indonesian Navy on 31 May — we have interviewed the 65 passengers and they have said that the crew received a payment,” Mr Lynch told the BBC.

“What we were told — this is unconfirmed — by the 65 passengers is they were intercepted by a naval vessel from Australia. And then they were transferred to a Customs boat where they spent four days. And then they were put on two blue boats and then sent back to Indonesia.”

A police chief from the island of Rote said the crew’s claims appeared true. “I saw the money with my own eyes,” he said.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised the issue with Australian ambassador Paul Grigson during a conference in Jakarta at the weekend.

“We are really concerned if it is confirmed,” she said.

A spokesman for the Indonesian foreign ministry went further, linking the payment to the Abbott Government’s policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.

“We have consistently said that the Australian Government’s push-back policy is on a slippery slope,” Arrmanatha Nasir said. “If this latest incident is confirmed, this will be a new low for the way that the Australian Government is handling this issue.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, pressed on the issue, refused to confirm or deny that Australia had paid people smugglers to turn around asylum boats. “The important thing is that we keep the boats stopped,” he said.

Mr Dutton would not repeat his flat denial that cash had exchanged hands, instead saying it was an operational matter.

“We will act within the law, we will act within our international obligations, but from day one we have not commented on specific operations,” he said.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the Government had to reveal what had gone on.