Australian officials paid human smugglers to turn boat people back, Amnesty claims

Amnesty International says this photo was taken by an asylum seeker on the two-deck boat which had departed from Indonesia. The photo was taken prior to interception and transfer onto two smaller boats by Australian Border Force May 2015. Via Amnesty International

Human rights organization Amnesty International says it has “damning evidence” Australian officials paid human smugglers to turn boats with asylum seekers and migrants around.

In a report released Wednesday, Amnesty International claims it has uncovered proof that government authorities paid a crew of six smugglers to take a New Zealand-bound boat carrying 65 people — mostly from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar — back to Indonesia.

Amnesty alleges the Australian officials paid the crew of the smuggling boat US$32,000, transferred the passengers to smaller boats and provided the smugglers with a map of where to go ashore.

The officials, Amnesty said, were working with the Australian government’s Operation Sovereign Borders — an aggressive campaign the government says aims to “combat people smuggling and protect Australia’s borders” by intercepting illegal smuggling boats before they make it ashore and either forcibly returning migrants to their home countries or shipping detainees to holding centres in third countries.

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It’s a military-led operation that refugee groups say “breaches” human rights and the legality of the program has been questioned in High Court challenges.

Amnesty claims there were two incidents this year — the one in May and another in July, involving a boat carrying 25 passengers — that “put the lives of dozens of people at risk.”

Now, following interviews with passengers, crew members and Indonesian officials, Amnesty International is alleging criminal activity.

“All of the available evidence points to Australian officials having committed a transnational crime by, in effect, directing a people-smuggling operation, paying a boat crew and then instructing them on exactly what to do and where to land in Indonesia. People-smuggling is a crime usually associated with private individuals, not governments – but here we have strong evidence that Australian officials are not just involved, but directing operations,” Anna Shea, Refugee Researcher at Amnesty International said in a statement on the release of the report.

“Australia has, for months, denied that it paid for people smuggling, but our report provides detailed evidence pointing to a very different set of events.”

And it’s denying the claims again now.

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“People on intercepted vessels are held lawfully in secure, safe, humane, and appropriate conditions by the personnel of the Australian Border Force and the Australian Defence Force,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton saying. “To suggest otherwise, as Amnesty has done, is to cast a slur on the men and women of the ABF and ADF.”

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The title of the report, By hook or by crook, is a not to the hard line migrant policies of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“What we are doing is saving life at sea. We are defending our national sovereignty, we are protecting our country from the evil trade of people smuggling, and by hook or by crook we will do what is necessary to keep our country safe and to keep this evil trade stopped,” Abbott said in June of this year, prior to being ousted in a party leadership vote last month.

At that time, according to the Guardian, Abbott said Australia would do “whatever we need to do” in order to prevent migrant boats from reaching the country’s shores. When an Australian radio host questioned if that included paying smugglers, Abbott said he wouldn’t “get into hypotheticals” but said officials have been “incredibly creative” in stopping boat people.

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Abbott on Tuesday made his first major public appearance since losing his job and used the occasion to perpetuate his hard line on boat people.

Speaking at a lecture in honour of late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Abbott told the audience “misguided altruism” is “fundamentally weakening” Europe.

“All countries that say ‘anyone who gets here can stay here’ are now in peril, given the scale of the population movements that are starting to be seen,” Abbott told the crowd.

He added European leaders should follow his example of turning migrant boats around.

“This means turning boats around, for people coming by sea,” the New York Times reported Abbott saying. “It means denying entry at the border, for people with no legal right to come. And it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go.”

Europe has been faced with a refugee and migrant crisis not seen since the end of the Second World War. The International Organization for Migration now estimates nearly 710,000 asylum seekers and migrants have arrived on European shores by boat so far this year, while some 3,200 have died or gone missing trying to do so.

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