Amnesty accuses Australia over people-smuggling

2:23 pm on 29 October 2015

Amnesty International says there is extremely good, consistent evidence behind claims Australian officials acted illegally towards refugees when they intercepted asylum seekers at sea this year.

Crew members on an asylum seeker boat said they had received $US32,000 from Australian officials about 24 May 2015, Amnesty International's report states.

Crew members on one boat said they received $US32,000 (pictured) from Australian officials, Amnesty International's report states. Photo: Amnesty International

It has published a report - 'By Hook or by Crook: Australia's Abuse of Asylum-Seekers at Sea' - into two boat interceptions by Australian maritime border officials. One boat was reportedly destined for New Zealand.

These asylum seekers were among those sent to immigration detention
in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, after their boat was intercepted and turned back by Australian officials, Amnesty International says.

Asylum seekers in detention in Kupang, Indonesia Photo: Amnesty International

Amnesty interviewed asylum seekers, Indonesian police and a boat crew and says their testimonies suggest Australian authorities paid people-smugglers tens of thousands of dollars to return the asylum seekers to Indonesia.

In June, an asylum seeker told RNZ he had seen a boat captain put Australian currency in his pocket after talking with Australian officials.

Amnesty New Zealand executive director Grant Bayldon told Morning Report the evidence was very consistent.

"Including photos of the cash that the Indonesian police confiscated off the boat crew, so quite detailed descriptions of where the handovers took place, the contents, the amounts - all of those things stacked up."

Read Amnesty International's report (PDF, 1.5MB)

The Amnesty International report also claims Australia denied the asylum seekers medical treatment - and even withheld their own medications:

"While on board the Australian ship a number of people developed health problems... One woman said that she fainted three times from the heat and the stress, hitting her head on one occasion. She told Amnesty International that an Australian doctor examined her but said he did not have permission to give her medicine.

"Another woman who has blood pressure problems was not allowed to take her own medicine, which had been taken away from her [by the Australians].

"Similarly, a man who suffers from asthma said that he was not permitted to access his inhaler, which had been confiscated, and he suffered asthma attacks while confined to the cell."

The report says this photo was taken by an asylum seeker and shows a two-deck boat from Indonesia before it was intercepted by Australia in May 2015.

The report says this photo, taken by an asylum seeker, shows a two-deck boat before its interception by Australia in May 2015. Photo: Amnesty International

Australian border force ships, viewed from the deck of an asylum seekers’ boat, in May 2015.

A second and third photo show Australian border force ships, viewed from the deck of the asylum seekers' boat. Photo: Amnesty International

The report says Australian officials also risked asylum seekers' lives by transferring them onto poorly equipped boats. It says one of the boats ran into trouble before reaching Indonesia:

"A few hours later, one of the boats ran out of fuel. The crew members successfully transferred all the passengers onto the other boat, which was then dangerously overcrowded. Video taken by one of the asylum-seekers shows the transfer operation. The crew told Amnesty International that, at this point, the situation was dangerous and the passengers were panicking.

"The crew managed to steer the boat to Landu Island, an island near Rote Island, where it struck a reef in the late afternoon on 31 May 2015. Local people helped rescue them. The May 2015 incident described to Amnesty International constitutes people-smuggling."

The two boats mentioned in the report - ‘Jasmine’, left, and ‘Kanak’ - after being towed to Rote Island by Indonesian officials.

The two boats - 'Jasmine', left, and 'Kanak' - after being towed to Rote Island by Indonesian officials. Photo: Amnesty International

Refugee says he witnessed payments

A Bangladeshi refugee who was on one of the boats told Morning Report he hoped the report will bolster his group's case. He is among a group which remains at a camp in Indonesia as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.

The man was interviewed by Amnesty International last month about the claims of payments.

"When they [the crew] get the payment I was there, and after they came back the police find all the money from them," said the man, who Amnesty International has asked not be named.

"They're involved with the payment, the Australian Navy and the border customs."

He said before the payment was made the crew never agreed to go to turn back to Indonesia, but after the payment they agreed.

He said they had to transfer from their original boat onto two smaller ones.

"Our boat was a big one, you know, they divided all the passengers for two boats, the two boats have not enough fuel.

"That's why after half and one hour one boat's fuel was finished, after that we all shift to another boat so we're 65 together in one boat."

He said after 20 minutes the boat crashed on rocks they all were forced to swim for land, they swam for one and a half hours he said.

"One woman was pregnant with two small children, one is only one year maybe."

He said Australian authorities were fully aware of the group's intention to make its way to New Zealand.

"Yes obviously they know about that because the first day when they check all our equipment, and check our GPS phone was only for New Zealand, our destination was set.

"We still want to come to New Zealand because we heard that New Zealand is a peaceful country, and not violent and no political problems."

He had this message to the Australian government.

"We are not a criminal, we are human and we want to live a peaceful life, without any reason nobody leaves their homeland, their families. So please try to help us and give us a chance to get a peaceful life."

Call for new investigation

Amnesty International is calling for a Royal Commission to investigate the allegations.

In June, Tony Abbott - who was Australian Prime Minister at the time - refused to confirm or deny the boat payment allegations and instead said the government would stop the boats "by hook or by crook".

"We have used a whole range of measures to stop the boats, because that's what the Australian people elected us to do," he said.

Several senior Australian government ministers did deny the allegations, however.

An Australian parliamentary committee is now investigating the boat payment claims - and is due to deliver its report in February 2016.

The foreign affairs spokesperson for New Zealand's Labour Party, David Shearer, said he would be seeking assurances from the New Zealand government that it was not involved.

"I think it's really important that we are seen to have our hands clean in this matter, that we haven't been involved in any way with the payment of people smugglers," Mr Shearer said.

"I hope our government in turn has had nothing to do with what's gone on because, if we have got our hands dirty in it, I think that's very, very serious."

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