Asylum-seekers on board a boat prior to being intercepted and turned back by Australian officials

Evidence of cash payments and abuse by Operation Sovereign Borders cannot be swept under the carpet

Amnesty International has appeared before a Senate Committee today to shed further light on Australia’s secretive Operation Sovereign Borders, following last year’s explosive reports Australian officials paid off a crew to smuggle a boat back to Indonesia in May 2015.

The Senate Inquiry, being undertaken by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, will hear evidence and report on the alleged payment of cash by Australian officials in exchange for the return of asylum seeker boats, as documented in Amnesty International’s 2015 report “By hook or by crook: Australia’s abuse of asylum seekers at sea”.

Evidence of these payments from Australian officials to people smugglers in May 2015 has already been accepted by the Indonesian courts: the captain and crew of that boat were sentenced to jail time, with the judge taking as fact that the smugglers had “received money from Australian customs”.

Amnesty’s report also raises questions about whether the cash payments during the May pushback were an isolated incident, providing witness testimony that Australian officials may have paid money to the crew of another boat turned back in July 2015.

“The evidence Australian officials paid off the boat crew in May 2015 is very strong, and so far the Government has deliberately avoided refuting this evidence. Such payments from Australian officials would amount to a transnational crime. This is not a claim Amnesty International makes lightly”.

“We have also amassed a significant amount of witness testimony pointing to a systematic disregard for the well-being of people on board vessels pushed back by Australian officials: from allegations of physical violence to the denial of medicines and medical care, to endangering people’s lives by forcing them onto crowded vessels with inadequate fuel”.

“Amnesty International opposes the policy of pushing back boats because it is dangerous for the people on board, puts them at risk of being returned to a place where they may face abuse, and shirks Australia’s international commitments to protect the rights of asylum seekers.”Dr Graham Thom, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

“These are some of the world’s most vulnerable people and our government is sanctioning secret and potentially illegal activities which unnecessarily force people back to an uncertain future.

“This inquiry is one step towards improving accountability in Australia’s management of Operation Sovereign Borders but it is not enough.

“Amnesty International continues to call for a Royal Commission into Operation Sovereign Borders, to investigate and report on allegations of criminal and unlawful acts by Australian government officials, including allegations of payments made to crew and ill-treatment at sea.

“The humane and legal thing is to end the policy of turning back boats; however, if Australia is to continue with this dangerous pushback policy, Amnesty International strongly recommends a mechanism is put in place to ensure independent monitoring of all activities undertaken by Operation Sovereign Borders, including of any operations to intercept and push back boats.

“It is vital changes are made to ensure Australian government activities – particularly in matters concerning asylum-seekers – are in keeping with Australia’s international obligations and do not occur under a veil of secrecy, beyond public scrutiny.”