Posted on June 18, 2015

Asian Migrants Say Australia Paid Smugglers to Turn Back

Nick Cumming-Bruce and Joe Cochrane, New York Times, June 12, 2015

Asian migrants on a boat that was intercepted by the Australian authorities three weeks ago have told refugee workers that the Australians paid the smugglers to take them back to Indonesia, a United Nations official said on Friday.

The 65 migrants–including 54 from Sri Lanka, 10 from Bangladesh and one from Myanmar–gave their accounts to employees of the United Nations refugee agency in Indonesia, where they were brought ashore and placed in detention, said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the agency in Geneva.

“They are telling us that they were intercepted by Australian officials at sea,” Mr. Baloch said in a telephone interview. “They were taken on board an Australian customs boat for four days. They were then put on two blue boats and the crews were paid to take them back to Indonesia.”

The migrants’ account has stoked debate over the hard-line policy on illegal immigrants that helped Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia win office in 2013 but exposed the nation to pointed criticism from United Nations agencies.

Mr. Abbott did little to change the tide on Friday, pointedly refusing to deny the reports and suggesting, cryptically, that they were true.

“We will do whatever is reasonably necessary to protect our country from people smuggling and from the effects of this evil and damaging trade that costs lives,” Mr. Abbott said during a radio interview, skirting questions as to whether his government had actually paid the smugglers.

Saying that the government would stop boats “by hook or crook,” he added, “I just don’t want to go into the details of how it’s done because like a lot of things that law enforcement agencies have to do, it’s necessary, it’s difficult and at times I suppose it’s dangerous work. But we deal with it.”