Abbott dodges claim Australia paid people smugglers

Prime minister evades questions on claims that authorities paid an asylum-seeker boat crew to turn back to Indonesia.

Australia’s prime minister has point-blank refused to say whether his country’s authorities paid people smugglers to turn around their boat holding dozens of asylum seekers, who were eventually rescued by Indonesian authorities after they became stranded.

In an interview with 3AW Radio on Friday, Tony Abbott was asked numerous times to confirm if the allegations were true.

The asylum seekers said they were trying to reach Australia by boat when they were turned back at sea by Australian authorities in late May, Indonesian police told Al Jazeera.

Their boat then became stranded off Rote Island, near West Timor, northwest of Australia, where they were rescued by island authorities.

This week, however, Indonesian authorities said they were investigating allegations told to local police that the captain and five crew members of the boat were each paid $5,000 by an Australian immigration official to return to Indonesia.

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“We don’t comment on operational matters but we are determined to ensure that illegal boats don’t get to Australia,” Abott told 3AW Radio.

“What we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook because that’s what we’ve got to do and that’s what we’ve successfully done and 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.”

No investigation planned

Abbott also refused to say if the Australian government would look into the allegations.

“What we are doing is saving lives at sea, we are defending our national sovereignty, we are protecting our country from the evil trade of people smuggling and … we will do what is necessary to keep our country safe and to keep this evil trade stopped,” he said.

He said later he would not reveal any details of his government’s border-protection policies “because I’m not in the business of implicitly or explicitly giving information to people smugglers”.

Arrmanatha Nasir, Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesman, said on Thursday that if the claims against Australia were correct “we would truly regret that something like this could happen”.

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Abbott’s conservative government has long criticised what it calls the “evil” people-smuggling trade, so confirmation of government-endorsed payments to people smugglers could provide plenty of political capital to its opponents.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Melbourne, David Manne, executive director of the Australian Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said Abbott’s latest comments appear to show that the government was willing to act “without moral consideration”.

“This ‘whatever it takes’ approach is an unacceptable approach for a country signed up to the refugee convention,” Manne said.

Source: Al Jazeera