04:01 - Source: CNN
U.N.: Australia 'paid migrant smugglers to turn back'

Story highlights

Australia says it will uphold its international obligations, but migrant organization says payments to traffickers unethical

U.N. refugee agency says Australian government paid human traffickers to turn a boat back

Australian PM has refused to give a straight answer on allegations

CNN  — 

The Australian government stands accused of shirking its international obligations to migrants following allegations it paid people smugglers to turn back a boat full of people seeking asylum.

The country’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said that his government would honor its international commitments.

“We will act within the law; we will act within our international obligations,” he told reporters Sunday.

However, migrant advocates have said that, should the allegations prove true, Australia is shirking its international obligations.

“Clearly helping people smugglers is not something that is supported by international conventions,” Leonard Doyle, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told CNN’s John Vause.

“Indeed if they’re traffickers by this point then that is something that would not be supported by anybody but we have to see what the facts are.”

First-hand reports

The United Nations refugee agency’s report cited firsthand accounts of people on board a ship that was diverted to Indonesia after coming in contact with Australian authorities.

The boat – carrying 65 migrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar – was intercepted by the Indonesian navy after turning back on May 31, the UNHCR said.

The migrants were transferred to an Indonesian customs vessel for four days before being sent on two boats to Indonesia, the UNHCR added, after speaking to some of the passengers.

Australia did not deny the payment and Prime Minister Tony Abbott went on the defensive Friday when asked about the claim. Abbott refused to “comment on operational matters.”

Answers sought

Along with Australian opposition politicians, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, has demanded a response from the Abbott administration and said she had taken up the issue with Australia’s ambassador to Jakarta.

A ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir told Australia’s ABC News that Indonesia would investigate the UNHCR allegations.

“Of course on Australia’s push-back policy we have been consistently saying they are on a slippery slope,” ABC reported him as saying.

“Should this situation (be) confirmed … it would be a new low.”

Speaking with reporters Sunday, Abbott again avoided giving a direct answer as to whether Australia had paid people smugglers to turn boats around.

“There’s really only one thing to say here… and that is we have stopped the boats,” CNN affiliate Sky News reported Abbott as saying.

“That’s good for Australia, it’s good for Indonesia and it’s particularly good for all of those who want to see a better world because if the boats start again, the deaths start again. None of us should want to see deaths at sea and the only way to ensure that the boats stay stopped. It’s important that the Indonesians know that the Australian government is absolutely resolute in our determination never to see this evil trade start up again.”

Relations between Indonesia and Australia remain strained following the execution of two Australian nationals, part of the so-called Bali 9 group of drug smugglers, in April. Australia recalled its ambassador from Jakarta following the incident.

‘Keep the door open’

There are concerns that the plight of genuine refugees is being politicized by governments like Abbott’s.

“At the end of the day migration is a complex issue. It’s often reduced to political slogans and it’s certainly not something to be managed through sloganeering. We can’t just lock the door on people,” IOM’s Doyle told CNN.

“Around the world it’s a phenomenon that needs collaboration and not simply closing the door on the problem.”