Indonesia says Australia is stooping to a 'new low' if it is paying asylum seeker boats to turn back

The Indonesian Government is investigating claims that Australian customs paid the crew of an asylum seeker boat to turn back to Indonesian waters.

The captain and five crew members of a boat, carrying 65 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, are said to have each received $US5000 ($A6450).

The claims were made to local police on Rote Island off West Timor after the boat hit a reef near Landuti Island.

“I saw the money with my own eyes,” the local police chief said. “This is the first time I’d heard [of] Australian authorities making payments to boat crew.”

Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said: “We have consistently said that the Australian government’s push-back policy is on a slippery slope. If this latest incident is confirmed, this will be a new low for the way that the Australian government is handling this issue.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not deny the claims in a radio interview, saying that “what we do is stop the boats by hook or by crook”.

“We will do whatever is reasonably necessary to protect our country from people smuggling and from the effect of this evil and damaging trade that costs lives,” Abbott told Neil Mitchell on 3AW.

Abbott’s policy on asylum seekers has come under fire after the UN called out on Australia’s “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of refugees earlier last year.

Concerns were raised by the committee on “the policy of intercepting and turning back boats, without due consideration of [Australia’s] obligations”.

In an interview with the ABC, professor of international law at the Australian National University, Don Rothwell, says the actions of the Australian government “would be tantamount to people smuggling” under current regional protocols.

“People smuggling is defined with the protocol and to that end the provision of monies to people who are engaged in people-smuggling activities to take persons from a place on the high seas to another place, such as Indonesia, is clearly a people smuggling-type activity,” Rothwell said.

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