SYDNEY/JAKARTA (Reuters) - Calls grew on Monday for an inquiry into reports that Australian officials paid people-smugglers bound for Australia thousands of dollars to turn their boat back to Indonesia, with Jakarta and the United Nations also expressing serious concern.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum-seekers reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can and sending asylum-seekers for long-term detention in camps in impoverished South Pacific nations Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
A boat captain and two crew members arrested 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 last week denied reports of payment to the smugglers but both declined to repeat the denials during a heated parliamentary debate on Monday.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declined to comment, citing operational security.
A growing chorus of opposition politicians wants the government to explain.
Opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten said the refusal to dispel the reports would entice people smugglers.
“By failing to deny reports that criminal people smugglers could be paid $30,000 if they make it to an Australian vessel, isn’t the government providing a cash incentive for these dangerous voyages to take place?” Shorten asked Abbott.
Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said she had asked the Australian Federal Police to investigate. Labor has sought an inquiry from the country’s auditor-general.
There are signs the allegations are already straining ties between uneasy neighbors Australia and Indonesia, which are only just beginning to improve after Indonesia’s execution of two Australians on drugs charges this year.
On Saturday, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir said Australia would have stooped to a “new low” if the reports were true.
Indonesia has yet to receive a clarification from Australia on the circumstances surrounding the push-back, deputy foreign minister A.M. Fachir told reporters on Monday.
Bishop lashed out at Jakarta in an interview with The Australian newspaper published on Monday, blaming Indonesia for what she called lax border controls.
“The best way for Indonesia to resolve any concerns it has ... is for Indonesia to enforce sovereignty over its borders,” she said.
In a brewing spat, Indonesian officials responded that the country is firm in protecting its sovereignty and territory.
The United Nations and human rights groups have criticized Australia over its tough asylum-seeker policy.
Payments to criminals were unacceptable, said United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres.
“We need to crack down on smuggling and trafficking, not paying them, but putting them in jail whenever possible, or prosecuting them,” he told the BBC.
Additional reporting by Jakarta bureau; Editing by Paul Tait/Hugh Lawson