Australia dodges allegations of bribing human traffickers

Southeast Asia
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 6/16/15, 04:15 pm

The seas of Southeast Asia are still churning with migrants stranded on boats, and despite the regional crackdown on human trafficking, opportunists abound.

Last week, police from Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province detained the captain and crew of a boat carrying 65 passengers from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, including children and a pregnant woman. In addition to human cargo, the boat’s crew was carrying $30,000 in cash. The group, originally headed toward New Zealand, told police Australia’s navy intercepted and paid them to return to Indonesia.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not deny the allegation, saying his border officials are “incredibly creative” in their response to recent episodes of human trafficking.

Indonesian officials say the prime minister’s comments could be interpreted as an endorsement of bribery. Agus Barnas, spokesman for Indonesia’s coordinating ministry for political, legal and security affairs, called Abbott’s statement “unethical.”

Australia’s opposition lawmakers pounced on the controversy, accusing the government of covertly incentivizing human trafficking. Smugglers “should be facing prosecution with the full force of the law,” not welcomed to Australian waters by the national navy acting as a “floating ATM,” said Richard Marles, immigration spokesman for the opposition Labor Party.

BBC News reported the prime minister’s defense: “What we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook … and that’s what we’ve successfully done, and I just don’t want to go into the details. … The important thing is to stop the boats.”

Is Australia paying human smugglers or not? When asked directly about payment claims at a recent news conference, Abbott said his government had used “a whole range of measures” to stop boats carrying migrants, “because that’s what the Australian people elected us to do.”

A recent Reuter’s article highlighted the growing concern over Australia’s harsh policies toward asylum-seekers. If the navy payoff can be confirmed, “it would be a new low for the way the government of Australia handles the situation on irregular migration,” Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir said.

This sharp rhetoric from Jakarta is the latest flaring of tension over Australia’s policy forbidding migrants ariving by boat to come ashore or resettle in the country. Nearby Indonesia is a common transit point for migrants fleeing oppression and poverty elsewhere in the region—most recently, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The perilous journey to Australia, often in barely seaworthy vessels, proves futile as migrants are boomeranged back to Indonesian waters.

According to the crew of the migrant boat recently stopped near Indonesia, an Australian navy official, fluent in Indonesian, boarded their vessel off Christmas Island and negotiated its departure. Authorities provided two boats, food, and fuel for the return journey. Later, Indonesian police discovered the boats and detained the crew on Rote Island in central Indonesia, about 675 miles southwest of Christmas Island.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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