Australian PM in storm over '€26k payment to people traffickers'
Australia has been accused of paying €26,000 to people smugglers to turn back a boatload of migrants to Indonesia - an "astonishing" claim that Tony Abbott, Australia's prime minister, refused to deny.
Details of the alleged cash payments emerged from separate accounts by an Indonesian police chief and a Bangladeshi asylum seeker.
Hidayat, the police chief, said Australian border officials intercepted a vessel carrying 65 asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma and gave US$5,000 (€4,400)wrapped in black plastic bags to each of the six crew members to sail back.
"I saw the money, the $5,000 was in $100 banknotes," he told Fairfax Media, adding that the payments were made by an Australian who spoke fluent Indonesian.
Nazmul Hassan, a Bangladeshi migrant on board the boat, said the captain put money in his pocket before declaring: "We have to go back. Australia want to pay for us."
Mr Abbott, who has adopted some of the world's toughest measures against asylum seekers, refused to deny the payments were made, saying Australia was determined to stop would-be refugees arriving by boat "by hook or by crook".
The payments were described as "astonishing", hypocritical and illegal by human rights lawyers.
Despite several Australian ministers denying the payments were made, Mr Abbott insisted: "I just don't want to go into details".
"What we do is 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," Mr Abbott told Macquarie Radio.
"I am proud of the work our border protection agencies have done. They've been incredibly creative in coming up with a whole range of strategies to break this evil trade. We will do whatever is reasonably necessary to protect our country from people smuggling and from the effect of this evil and damaging trade," the prime minister added.
The opposition accused Mr Abbott of turning Australian navy ships into "floating ATMs" which dispense money to people smugglers.
"It is a dangerous development, and we need to hear some clarity from this government today about whether that is the practice they are engaging in," said Richard Marles, a Labour MP.
Indonesian officials said they were investigating the "very concerning" claims.
"This is endangering life. They were in the middle of the sea, but were pushed back," an Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman told ABC Radio.
The Greens said the alleged payments were illegal and would suggest the government had been involved in human trafficking. "There's a very, very serious question about whether that is a crime, a crime under domestic law, a crime under international law," said Sarah Hanson-Young. (© Daily Telegraph, London)