Australian officials allegedly paid tens of thousands of dollars to people smugglers to turn a boat full of asylum seekers, including several Sri Lankans, back to Indonesia, Australian media reported today.
A boat carrying 65 people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, who were seeking asylum in New Zealand, was boarded by Australian custom officers in late May, Fairfax reported on Wednesday.
Asylum seekers on board the boat described being kept in “jail-like conditions” on a navy ship as navy and Customs officials intercepted, before the boat was turned around and sent back to the Indonesian island of Rote.
The Rota police chief said he saw the money himself, wrapped in six black plastic bags when the crew was apprehended for their people-smuggling operation, News.com.au reported.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has denied the claims and refused to answer questions on the matter.
A letter detailing the allegations was signed by all 65 asylum seekers on board the boat and delivered to the New Zealand government.
The letter said officials had paid at least $7000 to each of the six crew members.
One of the asylum seekers on board the boat, Nazmul Hassan from Bangladesh toldRadio New Zealand the boat twice encountered New Zealand officials, and those on board were told Australia “wanted to donate for us to go back to Indonesia”.
The asylum seekers reportedly swam ashore after their boat hit rocks in the West Rote district of Indonesia, after the crew agreed to turn the boat around.
Speaking from a detention centre in West Timor, Mr Hassan said he and the rest of the group were “mentally very upset”.
Former Immigration Department Executive Peter Hughes told Fairfax if the payment was true it would be unprecedented.
“I have never heard of that happening before,” he said.
News.com.au has contacted Minister Dutton’s office for a comment.