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Australia Allegedly Paid Smugglers To Reverse Boat Of Indonesian Migrants

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

People from Myanmar were among the passengers on a boat that was recently stopped by authorities in Australia. It's alleged that those Australian officials paid an Indonesian smuggler and the boat's crew $30,000 to take its passengers back to Indonesia where it had originated. It's a story raising new questions about Australia's hardening immigration policies.

HUGH DE KRETSER: What the Australian people are hearing is coming from Indonesia, sadly, not from our own government. So those reports are coming from the crew themselves, from the 65 asylum-seekers on board that boat, and they've been backed up by the local Indonesian police chief.

MARTIN: That's Hugh de Kretser. He's the director of the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center. And I asked him how the Australian government has responded to all this.

DE KRETSER: The prime minister refused to confirm or deny that the payments have been made but suggested they had been by saying things like, we will do whatever it takes to stop the boats; we'll stop them by hook or by crook. So in the context of the intense secrecy that has surrounded Australia's return or interception of boats at sea, of asylum-seeker boats, this statement by the prime minister suggest that the payments were made.

MARTIN: Is that illegal? If this turns out to be true, is that against Australian law?

DE KRETSER: Yeah. It's likely to be a breach of not just Australian law but Indonesian law and international law as well. So Australian law has specific offenses against people smuggling, so it's an offense to organize or facilitate the passage of a people-smuggling boat into a foreign country. And separately, it's likely to be a breach of Indonesian migration laws to facilitate that kind of boat turn back.

MARTIN: Do you know the circumstances of the passengers who were on this boat? Are they asylum-seekers? Were they migrants, and does the Australian government distinguish between those two groups and potentially treat them differently?

DE KRETSER: Yeah. I mean, unlike the sort of irregular migration you're seeing in the Mediterranean or across the United States-Mexico border, historically, what you see with boats arriving in Australia, is around 90 percent of people on those boats are found to be genuine refugees as opposed to migrants searching for better economic conditions. For example, the migrants who were from a range of countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar. There were a lot of people on board who were fleeing persecution, and Australia is doing whatever it can to stop those people seeking our protection as they're entitled to do and the under the refugees convention to which Australia's a party.

MARTIN: Immigration is clearly an important issue in Australia. The government is saying that it's cracking down. Where does this particular instance - paying off smugglers in this particular boat, where does this fit into the larger immigration policy?

DE KRETSER: Well, sadly, what we're seeing is this political obsession with preventing asylum-seekers from seeking our protection. And it's - these allegations of payments are just one in a long line of ever more radical measures that the successive Australian governments have adopted. And those include mandatory indefinite detention of asylum-seekers, including women and children, on the Australian mainland, mandatory indefinite detention of asylum-seekers in foreign countries now in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. We've now entered into an agreement with Cambodia so that asylum-seekers can be transferred, at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, for resettlement in Cambodia to avoid, at all costs, the prospect of them ever being afforded protection in Australia. So it's an extraordinary range of a tremendously cruel and harsh measures all aimed at deterrence rather than protection.

MARTIN: Hugh de Kretser is the director of the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center. Thanks so much for talking with us.

DE KRETSER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.