Australia is at risk of a fresh diplomatic spat with northern neighbor Indonesia amid claims people smugglers were paid to turn back a boat carrying asylum seekers toward the country’s waters.
Indonesian authorities say they are investigating an Australian Broadcasting Corp. report that a boat with 65 asylum seekers onboard was intercepted last week off Indonesia’s West Papua by an Australian border patrol. The crew were paid A$5,000 ($3,870) each to turn around, the report said, citing an Indonesian police chief.
Asked on Friday if the report was true, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters the government wouldn’t comment on “operational matters” related to people smuggling, as it’d give information to Australia’s enemies. Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir didn’t respond to a message to his mobile phone seeking comment. Australia’s foreign and immigration ministers have denied that the country has paid people smugglers, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The alleged incident could create new tensions between Australia and a major Southeast Asian trading partner. Abbott in April recalled his ambassador to Jakarta after Indonesia executed two Australians for drug offenses, though the envoy recently returned. The two countries have a long history of periodic friction.
Abbott won power in September 2013 vowing to “stop the boats” after a surge in asylum seekers attempting to travel to Australia by sea in often-rickety crafts operated by people smugglers from Indonesia. Some of them drowned in the process.
“We’ve used a whole range of measures to stop the boats because that’s what the Australian people elected us to do,” Abbott said Friday in Melbourne. “We will do whatever we reasonably can, consistent with the principles of a decent and humane society, to ensure that the boats stay stopped.”
A recent crackdown on human trafficking rings by authorities in Thailand has left thousands of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar stranded at sea, risking a regional humanitarian crisis as governments debate how to address the issue.
While Abbott says his government’s stance is humanitarian as it has reduced asylum-seeker drownings, which reached almost 1,200 under the previous Labor government, Indonesia says the policy is flawed.
If Australia did indeed pay smugglers to turn around the boat it amounted to “endangering life,” the Indonesian foreign ministry’s Nasir said, according to the ABC. “They were in the middle of the sea, but were pushed back.”
For more, read this QuickTake: Political Asylum