CANBERRA -- A new report by Amnesty International has accused Australian border officials of improperly detaining and roughly handling asylum seekers, while alleging intelligence officials may have been involved in transnational crime by allegedly paying off people smugglers.
The report “By Hook or by Crook- Australia’s Abuse of Asylum Seekers at Sea”, released overnight, further investigates allegations raised in June this year that, in May, Australian officials paid the crew of an asylum seeker boat more than US$30,000 to take it back to Indonesia.
Amnesty International has today taken out newspaper advertisements calling for a Royal Commission to compel witnesses and “get to the bottom of what is happening on the high seas.”
The boat was headed to New Zealand and whether or not it was stopped in international or Australian waters has been fiercely contested, as well whether it was intercepted in distress.
The Amnesty report includes photos, videos and interviews with the 65 asylum-seekers, the boat crew and Indonesian police.
Refugee Researcher at Amnesty International, Anna Shea, claims the asylum seekers and crew were “ill-treated” by the Customs (pre-Border Force) and Navy officials.
“From the evidence we gathered, the asylum seekers were arbitrarily and unlawfully detained. That is a human rights violation,” Shea told The Huffington Post Australia.
She said people were also denied care.
“The people on that May boat told me they were detained for a week on board an Australia ship in very hot cells where there was no room to move. They were locked inside.
“A few were denied access to medical care. Some of them had their asthma inhalers or medicines with them that had been confiscated and they weren’t allowed to use it.”
The Amnesty report also raises allegations of another potential paid turn back case in July.
“People told me similar stories of ill-treatment, being detained for a week, and one man said personnel threatened to shoot asylum seekers if they tried to come back to Australia,” the report’s author said.
Amnesty sought a response from the Australian Government last week on the claims, but had not received it before the report’s publication.
“We are really confident in our findings. Our research is very thorough. We have well-established and well-respected research practices,” Shea told HuffPost Australia.
“The photographic evidence is quite compelling as well.
“We have a video which shows the transfer that happened between one of the boats that the Australians gave to the asylum seekers and another one.”
The six Indonesian crew members claim Australian officials gave them a total of US$32,000 and this transaction was witnessed, according to Amnesty, by at least one asylum seeker.
Amnesty claims this, and allegations that maps and instructions were provided, is evidence of officials committing a “transnational crime”, by themselves engaging in people smuggling.
“We have strong evidence that Australian officials are not just involved, but directing operations,” she said.
“What is striking is how remarkably consistent the testimony of the asylum seekers was and the testimony of the crew. They were of course held in different locations.”
Indonesian police also confirmed to Amnesty that they found this amount of money on the crew when they arrested them.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the Government has responded previously to these allegations, including in a submission to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee on 30 July 2015.
“People on intercepted vessels are held lawfully in secure, safe, humane, and appropriate conditions by the personnel of the Australian Border Force (ABF) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
“To suggest otherwise, as Amnesty has done, is to cast a slur on the men and women of the ABF and ADF.
“The Government will always act in the best interests of the Australian people. Operation Sovereign Borders is conducted consistent with Australian domestic law and Australia’s obligations under international law.”
The Australian Government has denied it has paid people smugglers to turn around asylum seeker boats, saying its border and intelligence officials have always acted within the law.
Claims also emerged this year of Australian officials paying people smugglers for at least four or five years for intelligence, which means while Labor was in government.
The Government and the current Labor Opposition also say it would be unlawful to divulge security and intelligence information.
The Amnesty report does not state whether the May boat was intercepted in international or Australian waters, but Shea is convinced it was not in distress as claimed by Australian officials as their reason for boarding the vessel.
“The crew and the asylum seekers both told me categorically that the boat was never in distress and had never made a distress call,” she said.
“Despite having a satellite phone, so they had the means to call for help and they told me that they never did.”
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday said “some force” was needed in border protection policies as he gave advice to European leaders in a major speech in London.
Delivering the second annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture, Abbott urged Europe to follow Australia and shut their borders and turn back boats, as it grappled with the overwhelming migrant crisis.