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31 Oct 2015
[International Secretariat]
Topic: Refugees and Migrants

New evidence gathered by Amnesty International suggests that Australia’s maritime border control operations now resemble a lawless venture with evidence of criminal activity, pay-offs to boat crews and abusive treatment of women, men and children seeking asylum.

Through interviews with asylum-seekers, a boat crew and Indonesian police, a new report – By hook or by crook – exposes evidence that, in May 2015, Australian officials working as part of Operation Sovereign Borders paid six crew who had been taking 65 people seeking asylum to New Zealand USD 32,000 and told them to take the people to Indonesia instead. The Australians also provided maps showing the crew where to land in Indonesia.

Witness testimonies backed by video footage reveal how the intervention by Australian officials endangered the lives of the people seeking asylum by transferring them to different boats that did not have enough fuel, and how the incident fits into a wider pattern of abusive so-called “turnbacks” or “pushbacks” of boats.

The report also raises questions about whether Australian officials paid money to the crew of another boat turned back in July.

“Australia has, for months, denied that it paid for people smuggling, but our report provides detailed evidence pointing to a very different set of events,” said Anna Shea, Refugee Researcher at Amnesty International.

“All of the available evidence points to Australian officials having committed a transnational crime by, in effect, directing a people-smuggling operation, paying a boat crew and then instructing them on exactly what to do and where to land in Indonesia. People-smuggling is a crime usually associated with private individuals, not governments – but here we have strong evidence that Australian officials are not just involved, but directing operations.

“In the two incidents documented by Amnesty International, Border Force and Navy officials also put the lives of dozens of people at risk by forcing them onto poorly equipped vessels. When it comes to its treatment of those seeking asylum, Australia is becoming a lawless state.”

May 2015 incident

Since this incident was first reported in the media, Australian government officials have repeatedly denied paying people-smugglers and have claimed the border patrols were responding to a boat in distress at sea.

However, the crew members of the boat – interviewed by Amnesty International in Indonesia in August where they are currently in police custody – as well as the passengers, whom Amnesty International also interviewed, all say the boat was not in trouble and that they never made a distress call.

Australian border control officials initially approached the boat on 17 May 2015, and then again on 22 May. Most of the passengers– including a pregnant woman, two seven-year-olds and an infant – boarded a Border Force vessel after being told they could bathe there. Once aboard they were kept in cells for about a week. Some were denied medical care or access to their own medication.

On the original boat, the six crew claim that Australian officials gave them a total of 32,000 USD. At least one person seeking asylum witnessed the transaction and gave his testimony to Amnesty International. Indonesian police confirmed to Amnesty International that they found this amount of money on the crew when they arrested them on arrival in the country.

Amnesty International’s investigation is based on interviews with the 62 adults seeking asylum, the six crew members and Indonesian officials. The organization has also accessed crucial documentary evidence, including photos and a video taken by the passengers themselves during their journey. Indonesian police also showed an Amnesty International researcher the money they confiscated from the six crew - in crisp US 100 dollar bills.

On 31 May Australian officials transferred the crew and people seeking asylum onto two different and smaller boats, and the crew were given instructions to go to Rote Island in Indonesia as well as a map showing landing sites. The two boats had little fuel and one ran out of fuel while at sea. The terrified passengers were forced to do a dangerous mid-sea transfer onto the remaining boat and were eventually rescued by Indonesian locals after hitting a reef.

28 October 2015

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