AN INDONESIAN official yesterday criticised Australia’s prime minister as “unethical” for sidestepping allegations his country’s navy paid the crew of a boat carrying 65 migrants to return to Indonesian waters.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry has said it is “very concerned” by a report from police in East Nusa Tenggara province that the boat’s captain and five crew members detained on remote Rote island had about $30,000 in cash.
The group said they had been paid to return the migrants to Indonesia after being intercepted by an Australian navy ship on 20 May.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott did not deny the payment claim in a radio interview yesterday.
He said border officials were being “incredibly creative” in coming up with responses to human trafficking.
Mr Abbott also dodged questions about the payment allegation during a subsequent news conference.
Asked whether the government had paid people smugglers to turn back boats, he replied: “We’ve used a whole range of measures to stop the boats, because that’s what the Australian people elected us to do.”
Agus Barnas, a spokesman for Indonesia’s co-ordinating ministry for political, legal and security affairs, said Mr Abbott’s comments could be interpreted by Australian officials as endorsing bribery and might encourage people smuggling. “His statement is very unethical,” Mr Barnas said.
The sharp rhetoric from Jakarta is the latest flaring of tension over Australia’s policy of turning back and refusing to settle any migrant who arrives on its shores by boat. Migrants escaping poverty or oppression use Indonesia as a transit point for the perilous journey to Australia in often barely seaworthy vessels.
Australian opposition MPs jumped on the controversy, accusing the government of creating an incentive for people smugglers.
Such people “should be facing prosecution with the full force of the law, not be put in a situation that when they turn up aside an Australian navy vessel, they are in effect next to a floating ATM”, Richard Marles, immigration spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said.
Indonesian police said the boat had been carrying 65 migrants, mainly from Sri Lanka and a smaller number from Bangladesh, and was attempting to reach New Zealand.
According to the crew, the vessel was boarded off Christmas Island in Australian waters by a navy officer who spoke Indonesian and negotiated their return to Indonesia.
The row comes as south-east Asia is embroiled in a broader migrant crisis. Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Burma and Bangladeshis looking for a better life abroad have landed in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.