Australia’s border control officials are presiding over operations that Amnesty International says resemble “a lawless venture with evidence of criminal activity, pay-offs to boat crews and abusive treatment of women, men and children seeking asylum”.
By hook or by crook – Australia’s abuse of asylum-seekers at sea documents two cases of the Australian government paying a boat crew to smuggle asylum-seekers back to Indonesia.
The first incident occurred in May. A boat carrying six crew and 65 refugees departed Indonesia for New Zealand.
The passengers had each paid around US$4,000 for the voyage. Their ship was twice intercepted by Australian Navy and Border Force boats. The Australian authorities have said the second interception was motivated by a distress call. This is denied by passengers and crew.
Crew members say that Australian officials paid them US$32,000 and sent them and the asylum seekers back to Indonesia.
The payment was witnessed by at least one of the passengers. “He saw the Australian officers, the English-Bahasa interpreter, and the captain meeting in the kitchen of the original boat, and … he saw the captain put a thick white envelope in his shorts’ pocket”, the report notes.
The Indonesian police have confirmed that the crew were carrying approximately US$32,000 when they were apprehended.
Before paying off the crew, the Australian officers had offered people access to a Border Force ship “to bathe”. Fifty passengers accepted the offer. Once aboard, they were held in conditions described as “like a jail, with cells”. For almost a week, they were not allowed to return to their boat.
There were 25 people in a cell with room enough only for four triple bunk beds. A number of them, including children and a pregnant woman, developed health problems but were not allowed medicine.
A woman described fainting from the heat and stress, hitting her head. A man with asthma had his inhaler confiscated and was not allowed to access it. All of their belongings were confiscated.
On 31 May, the officials transferred all of the passengers and crew to two small boats and escorted them out of Australian waters.
One of the boats ran out of fuel in international waters. Video footage shows the passengers and crew helping people across from the useless vessel. The crew landed the remaining ship on an Indonesian island, where local people gave them food and fresh clothes.
Nobody was harmed once they were free of the Australian officials, but the Indonesian crew has been charged with people smuggling.
On 16 July, another vessel left Indonesia for Australia. It was intercepted nine days later by an Australian Navy vessel. The asylum seekers were detained for a week. When they returned to their ship, many of them noticed the crew had two bags they had not had before. The passengers were not informed that the crew were now returning them to Indonesia. When they realised this, they argued with the crew, threatening to search the bags.
The crew returned to the Australian Navy boat. The navy ships escorted the boat into Indonesian waters. A passenger told Amnesty:
“The Australians said ‘Don’t touch the crew’s baggage. We gave you just enough fuel to reach land – if you have problems, we won’t come again and save you. We are leaving you here near Indonesia – don’t try to go anywhere else because you don’t have fuel’. They also said: ‘If you come back, we’ll shoot you’.”
The 25 refugees are now in Indonesian immigration detention.
Immigration minister Peter Dutton has attacked the report, calling it “beyond the pale”. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that when asked what was actually wrong with the report, Dutton declined to comment.