Six smugglers at the centre of a “pay and turn back” row between Indonesia and Australia were being questioned by Indonesian police on Tuesday.
The men have been held at a police station on Rote Island in southeast Indonesia since 2 June, the day a boat carrying 65 asylum seekers was pushed back from Australian waters.
During a news conference at the police station, the captain of the boat, Yohanes Humiang, recounted what had happened.
“Four hours we sailing, continue to New Zealand. About four hours the customs, the customs Australia coming. The customs Australia they coming for us and they asking,because the time they driving two speedboats and then they try to stop us,” Humiang said.
“About four persons from the customs come on board. Then the customs doing evacuation and [they provided a boat for all people on board].”
The captain and two crew members have told Indonesian police Australian authorities had paid each of them AUD$5,000 (US$3,860) to turn back their vessel – an allegation denied by Australian officials.
The boat was carrying 54 Sri Lankans, 10 Bangladeshis and one person from Burma, including children and a pregnant woman.
One of them, now staying at a temporary detention center on Rote Island, alleged he saw smugglers being paid after they had been transferred into two boats provided for them by Australian immigration officials.
On Tuesday, Indonesian police held up U.S. dollar notes during the news conference, but said they were still investigating the allegation.
Australia has vowed to stop asylum seekers reaching its shores, turning boats back to Indonesia when it can, and sending asylum seekers to camps in impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru for long-term detention.
The United Nations and human rights groups have criticised Australia over its tough policy, which Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott defends as necessary to stop deaths at sea.
The Indonesian government has said that if true, paying traffickers to turn boats around would be a ‘new low’ for Australia.
Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of a conference held earlier this month.
“This is the first time that we know such a incident happen. Of course on the Australia’s push-back policy we have been consistently saying they are on a slippery slope. And should this situation is confirmed and turns out to be true, it would be a new low for the way that the government of Australia is handling the situation on irregular movement of migrants,” said Nasir.
The Australian government has refused to confirm or deny the allegation, but maintains government agents have done no wrong.
“I am absolutely confident that at all times Australian agencies have acted within the law,” Abbott told the press in Canberra on 16 June.
The Abbott government’s tough border protection policies have seen the number of smuggled migrants attempting to reach Australia drop to almost zero. Canberra says desperate people are no longer dying at sea in a vain attempt at finding a new life.
But its unflinching unilateral actions have come at a cost— not least to the tricky relationship between Australia and Indonesia.