SYDNEY: Australian officials on Friday refused to deny allegations that authorities paid crew on a people-smuggling boat $30,000 to return 65 asylum-seekers to Indonesia, while insisting that no laws had been broken.
The refusal to confirm or deny the allegations came after Amnesty International said the evidence of cash payments could no longer be ignored and as Australia comes under mounting pressure over its heavily criticized immigration policies.
The captain of a migrant boat said in June that Australian authorities paid him and his crew more than $30,000 to return to Indonesia and never again engage in people-smuggling.
A Senate hearing into the allegations questioned Friday whether a payment was ever made in the case, which saw 71 asylum-seekers and crew arrive on Indonesia’s Rote Island.
“Because it goes to the heart of operational activities . . . I am not able to answer that question,” Australian Border Force operational commander Major-General Andrew Bottrell said.
“We are neither confirming nor denying it,” added Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Pezzullo said Australian authorities’ actions were legal.
Canberra’s immigration policies, under which boats are turned back and asylum-seekers are denied resettlement in Australia even if found to be refugees, have been strongly criticized.
But the conservative government has credited them with stopping the flow of asylum-seekers risking their lives on the boat journey, with no successful boat arrivals in more than a year.
The hardline approach has caused particular tensions with Indonesia, the transit point for many would-be refugees en route to Australia.
The boat at the center of the payment allegations, which was reportedly heading to New Zealand and carrying predominantly Sri Lankan nationals, was intercepted in late May 2015.
Amnesty International said the evidence that Australian officials paid off the boat crew was strong and raised questions about whether payments occurred on other occasions.
“Such payments from Australian officials would amount to a transnational crime,” spokesman Graham Thom said in a statement on Thursday.