JAKARTA (Reuters) - Australia would have stooped to a “new low” if reports that its navy paid people-smugglers bound for Australia thousands of dollars to turn back their boat are true, an Indonesian government official said on Saturday.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum-seekers reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can and sending asylum-seekers to camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru for long-term detention.
A boat captain and two crew members arrested this week on suspicion of human trafficking told Indonesian police Australian authorities had paid each of them A$5,000 ($3,860) to turn back their vessel with 65 migrants on board.
The passengers, including children and a pregnant woman, were from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton have both denied reports of payment to the smugglers but Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declined to comment, citing operational security.
“Under Australian’s push-back policy we have been consistently saying they are on a slippery slope,” Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference.
“Should this situation be confirmed and it turns out to be true, it would be a new low for the way the government of Australia handles the situation on irregular migration.”
Nasir said it would be the first time such an incident occurred involving Australian authorities.
Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi raised the issue with Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, on the sidelines of a foreign policy conference in the Indonesian capital.
“He promised to bring my question to Canberra,” Marsudi told reporters. “We are really concerned, if it is confirmed.”
Indonesia plans to ask Australia for clarification, he said.
The United Nations and human rights groups have criticized Australia over its tough asylum-seeker policy, which Abbott defends as necessary to stop deaths at sea.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez