CANBERRA -- The Turnbull Government has rejected an Amnesty International report investigating Australian dealings with asylum seeker boat turn backs, saying it is a “slur” that won’t lead to a watering down of border protection policy.
The report “By Hook or by Crook- Australia’s Abuse of Asylum Seekers at Sea”, released overnight, alleges improperly detaining and roughly handling asylum seekers, while looking into allegations raised in June this year that, in May, Australian officials collectively paid six crew members more than US$30,000 to take it back to Indonesia.
Amnesty’s report has declared the “compelling” evidence of payments and instructions points to Australian involvement in transnational crime and it’s calling for a Royal Commission to “get to the bottom of what is happening on the high seas.”
The report alleges a second asylum seeker boat in July received payments to turn back to Indonesia and Amnesty has provided photos, videos and interviews with the asylum-seekers, the boat crew and Indonesian police.
However, the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is unmoved.
“We are not going to water down our policy when it comes to boats,” he told Macquarie Radio.
“We are not going to let people to settle in Australia if they sought to come here by boat. We have been clear about it, we have been consistent about it.”
“The policy continues under Malcolm Turnbull. It continued under me when I took over from Scott Morrison. We are not going to take a backwards step.”
Amnesty’s report claims the asylum seekers and crew were “ill-treated” and illegally detained 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,” Amnesty researcher, Anna Shea, told Huffington Post Australia.
She also claimed people were 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.”
Dutton said detained people are held “lawfully in secure, safe, humane, and appropriate conditions”, and for Amnesty to suggest otherwise is a “slur" on the men and women of Border Force and the Australian Defence Force.”
“They don't like Operation Sovereign Borders, they try and attack the border force staff and the naval staff and I think it is a disgrace,” he said.
“I think in the end, you can tale the word of people smugglers or you can take the word of our staff at Australian Border Force.”
The six Indonesian crew 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.”
“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.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has also rejected Amnesty International’s report.
“Our Australian officials operate in accordance with domestic Australian law and in accordance with our international obligations,” she told reporters in Melbourne.
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 does not state where the May boat was intercepted, but Anna 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 in 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.