Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, October 30th, 2015 - 34 comments
Categories: australian politics, david shearer, International, john key, national, national/act government - Tags: david shearer, refugees, tony abbott
Amnesty International has published a report By Hook or by Crook: Australia’s Abuse of Asylum-Seekers at Sea which has rightfully been described as a damning indictment of Australia’s handling of the refugee crisis.
The report reviews Australia’s handling of the refugee boat interception of the Pelabuhan Ratu and the report includes comment on a boat that was apparently heading for New Zealand. I thought previously that when news of this attempt were published it was just an attempt by the Government to raise panic but after reading the report it appears to be clear that an attempt was actually made.
The Australian action has the ominous sounding title Operation Sovereign Border. The justification for the interception offered by the Australian authorities was the claim that the boar was under distress and had to be returned to Indonesia so that lives could be preserved.
Amnesty International interviewed the refugees on board, the crew of the boat, the Indonesian Police and conducted research into what actually happened. The report comments that the evidence from all groups was remarkably consistent.
The ship itself was said to be perfectly adequate for the trip and the crew were sufficiently experienced to conduct the trip.
The ship was initially intercepted and the people warned on May 17, 2015. Then five days later a further interception occurred.
The executive summary contains this chilling description of what happened:
Australian Navy personnel boarded the boat and remained there. That night all the men were kept outside the cabin by armed Australian personnel. It rained hard for several hours, and salt spray was blown on board. Nevertheless, all 58 men were forced to stay outside with no protection from the elements. The pregnant woman told Amnesty International that she was in a great deal of pain that night – an Australian doctor examined her but just told her to drink water. None of the passengers was given food on the evening of 22 May. On 23 May, they were allowed to eat and the men were permitted to enter the cabin. Australian ships then escorted the boat to Greenhill Island, an Australian territory near Darwin.
While anchored at Greenhill Island, the Australian officials told the passengers that they would be able to bathe if they went on board the Border Force ship. Fifty passengers decided to transfer to the Border Force ship; 15 remained on the original boat. It was at this point, on the original boat, that the crew claim the Australian officials gave them money. The crew told Amnesty International that two of them received 6,000 USD each, and four received 5,000 USD apiece, making a total of 32,000 USD. One of the 15 asylum-seekers who had remained on board described how he saw the captain meeting with the Australians in the boat’s kitchen and saw the captain put a thick white envelope in his shorts’ pocket.
Meanwhile the fifty people who went to the Border Force ship, who included the three children and the pregnant woman, were put into cells and held there for approximately seven days. The cells were cramped and without air conditioning. While on board the Australian ship a number of people developed health problems. One woman said that she fainted three times from the heat and the stress, hitting her head on one occasion. An Australian doctor examined her but said he did not have permission to give her medicine. Another woman who has blood pressure problems claims that she was not allowed to take her own medicine, which had been taken away from her by the Australians. Similarly, a man who suffers from asthma said that he was not permitted to access his inhaler, which had been confiscated, and he suffered asthma attacks while confined to the cell.
The asylum seekers were then transferred to two smaller boats which they thought was not as well equipped as the original boat. The crew complied but the report notes that they may have been acting under duress.
The incident then took a turn for the worse.
On the way back to Indonesia, the two boats were initially escorted by two Australian Navy ships, two Border Force ships, and six speedboats. The Australians left the boats at around 11 a.m. on 31 May. A few hours later, one of the boats ran out of fuel. The crew members successfully transferred all the passengers onto the other boat, which was then dangerously over-crowded. Video taken by one of the asylum-seekers shows the transfer operation. The crew told Amnesty International that, at this point, the situation was dangerous and the passengers were panicking. The crew managed to steer the boat to Landu Island, an island near Rote Island, where it struck a reef in the late afternoon on 31 May 2015. Local people helped rescue them.
The issue of payments to the crew is then discussed:
The Australian Government has denied that Australian officials paid a boat crew to take people to Indonesia. The denials, made by two Australian government ministers, are challenged by all of the available evidence. Amnesty International has documented the first- hand testimony of the men who received the money. Amnesty International has also documented the testimony of an eye-witnesses to the Australian officials handing over money to the crew. The police who detained the crew members confirm they were found with approximately 32,000 USD and showed Amnesty International the money they confiscated from the crew.
So first hand testimony from the disparate groups and large amounts of cash. Generally this is pretty good evidence that what they say occurred actually did occur.
During June then Prime Minister Tony Abbott was asked about the payments. He refused to confirm or deny the boat payment allegation and instead said the government would stop the boats “by hook or by crook”. I think that you could take his comments as a confirmation that the payments were actually made.
It is certainly arguable that serious breaches of international and/or domestic law have occurred. The specific breaches could include people smuggling, detention and breaches of various maritime provisions.
New Zealand’s involvement and knowledge of what was happening should be investigated. Presuming the payments happened it is difficult to understand how the New Zealand authorities could not know what was happening.
John Key was asked a few months ago about the payments and New Zealand’s knowledge of what had happened. The audio is here. I could be accused of being a cynic but his explanation does not sound convincing.
David Shearer is right. The Government needs to assure the public that it has not paid people smugglers to take refugees bound for New Zealand away from New Zealand.