By Matt Siegel
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined to comment on Friday on reports the Australian navy paid a group of people-smugglers thousands of dollars to turn around their boat packed with asylum-seekers, adding to a furore over the issue.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum-seekers reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can and sending asylum-seekers to camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru for long-term detention.
This week, media in Australia and Indonesia reported that people-smugglers on a boat carrying 65 asylum-seekers were paid about A$5,000 each to abandon their journey to Australia and return to Indonesia after being intercepted at sea.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton have both denied the reports, but Abbott has declined to do so, citing operational security.
“We don’t go into the details of operational measures to fight crime, we don’t go into the details of operational measures on national security, and I’m certainly not going to go into the details of operational matters on the water now,” Abbott told reporters.
Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir told reporters the captain of the asylum-seeker vessel was being detained on charges related to people-smuggling.
Nasir said the captain and his crew told him that they had received $5,000 per person to turn back the ship, the Investor Daily newspaper on Friday cited Nasir as saying.
Australian coastguard officials blocking the people-smuggling boat put the money in six black plastic bags and and handed it over, Nasir quoted the captain as saying.
“According to them, that happened aboard the ship, the Australian coastguards went to the ship to give the money A$5,000 per person so that they go back to Indonesia,” Nasir said.
“We will do further investigation, but if it is true, we are very sorry that it happened.”
Nasir was not available for comment.
The United Nations and human rights groups have criticised Australia over its tough asylum-seeker policy, which Abbott defends as necessary to stop deaths at sea.
Australian opposition Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young criticised Abbott for declining to address the accusations, which she called “appalling”.
“Either this happened or it didn’t. Either the Australian government has paid for the trafficking of people on the high seas or it didn’t,” Hanson-Young told reporters in Adelaide.
“The prime minister has to be up front.”