Indonesian officials on Monday said Australia may have engaged in bribery by paying the crew of a boat carrying undocumented migrants U.S. $30,000 to turn back to Indonesia.
The allegations have increased tensions between the neighboring countries that were already high due to Indonesia’s controversial execution of two Australian drug convicts on April 29.
"If it is true, what Australia did was unethical,” Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told reporters in Jakarta on Monday.
"It is wrong for a person to bribe, and it is certainly wrong, unsuitable, for a country. Such an act is definitely incorrect in the context of bilateral relations,” Kalla added.
Separately, Indonesian Deputy Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Mohammad Fachir told BenarNews that the foreign ministry was seeking clarification on the issue from Canberra.
“Indonesia has yet to take a stand on the issue. We are waiting a response from Australia,” Mohammad said Monday.
"Paying money to human smugglers is a form of bribery,” he added.
According to news reports, a Royal Australian Navy ship stopped a boat carrying 65 illegal migrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar and turned it back toward Indonesia.
On May 31, Indonesian authorities detained the boat’s passengers and crew after intercepting the vessel off the eastern island of Rote.
Passengers later told local police they had seen Australian sailors pay off the boat’s captain and five crew members – who were all Indonesians – instructing them to turn their vessel around and head back to Indonesia. Each of the crewmembers received U.S. $5,000, police said.
“I saw the money with my own eyes,” Yustina Lema, a spokeswoman for Regional Office of Justice and Human Rights, told BenarNews. “This is a new phenomenon.”
"The boat that was rescued by the Indonesian navy on 31 May – we have interviewed the 65 passengers and they have said that the crew received a payment," James Lynch, a spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told BBC News on Friday.
Abbott: Refusal to confirm or deny reports
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has staunchly held back from confirming or denying the reports about the alleged payments.
“What the government has done is stop the boats. We have stopped the boats, and we have used a whole range of measures to stop the boats,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“We will do whatever we reasonably can consistent with the principles of a decent and humane society to ensure that the boats stay stopped,” he continued. “And I am never, ever going to apologize for stopping the boats because, frankly, that was absolutely necessary after the former government created a disaster on our borders.”
“What we have done very firmly, for all sorts of good reasons, since September of 2013 is not comment on operational matters, because every time we comment on operational matters we give information to our enemies,” Abbott added.
On Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched a sharp rebuke of Indonesian criticism of this policy.
“The best way for Indonesia to resolve any concerns it has about Operation Sovereign Borders is for Indonesia to enforce sovereignty over its borders,” Bishop told The Australian, referring to the pushback policy on the high seas.
“Operation Sovereign Borders is necessary because Indonesian boats with Indonesian crews are leaving Indonesia with the express intention of breaching our sovereignty, facilitated by illegal people-smuggling syndicates,” she added.
Meanwhile, members of Australia’s opposition on Monday called for an investigation into the allegations.
The Labor and the Australian Greens parties have asked the country’s auditor-general and federal police, respectively, to probe the matter, Reuters reported.
"By failing to deny reports that criminal people smugglers could be paid $30,000 if they make it to an Australian vessel, isn't the government providing a cash incentive for these dangerous voyages to take place?" the news agency quoted Labor Party leader Bill Shorten as saying.