An Amnesty International investigation has found Australian officials may have paid money to the crew of a boat intercepted in July – which would be the second such alleged incident.
The claim of a possible second payment comes as Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the pregnant Somali woman known as Abyan, who sought an abortion after she was allegedly raped on Nauru, is being brought to Australia a second time.
As publicity centres on Nauru, its government has lashed out at the Australian media, accusing it of “an air of racial superiority”.
Amnesty International researchers investigated two incidents of alleged payments, documenting them in its report “By hook or by crook” released on Thursday.
One was the much-publicised incident that occurred in May, when Operation Sovereign Borders reportedly paid six crew members who had been taking a boatload of people seeking asylum to New Zealand and told them to return the people to Indonesia.
At first two ministers denied the allegation of money being paid but then the government defaulted to refusing to confirm or deny.
“Amnesty International has documented the first-hand testimony of the men who received the money. Amnesty International has also documented the testimony of an eyewitness to the Australian officials handing over money to the crew,” the report says.
In relation to the second incident, Amnesty International interviewed 15 people from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar, who were among those whose boat was intercepted on July 25 by the Australian Navy and Border Force. They were transferred first to the Navy ship and then to a Border Force ship.
They were put on a new boat similar to their original vessel on August 1.
According to the passengers, by then the attitude of the two crew had changed. “Several passengers also said the crew had two bags that they had not had before being intercepted by the Australian authorities.”
“After the passengers threatened to search the two new bags in the crew’s possession, the crew agreed to drive back to the Navy ship. Once the boat reached the Navy ship, the passengers claim that the Australian officials were more aggressive than they had been previously, warning them several times not to touch the crew’s bags, and threatening to shoot them if they returned. They were given a small amount of fuel and told that they should go to Rote Island.”
The boat ran out of fuel but was intercepted by Indonesian police. Amnesty says the only article about this was in the local press.
Amnesty International says the evidence suggests “Australia’s maritime border control operations now resemble a lawless venture with evidence of criminal activity, pay-offs to boat crews and abusive treatment of women, men and children seeking asylum”.
It says that based on the information it has gathered, Australia has breached a number of international laws, including international law on transnational crime and international human rights law.
It is calling for a royal commission into Operation Sovereign Borders to investigate allegations of criminal and unlawful acts by Australian government officials. “In addition, Australia must ensure that those whose rights were violated by the conduct of Australian officials have access to an effective remedy and reparation.”
Meanwhile Australia has come under international pressure over Abyan. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for Australia and Nauru to provide a “decent option” for her, saying she was in a fragile mental and physical condition and deeply traumatised.
Abyan was brought to Australia previously after indicating she wanted a termination but was returned to Nauru without the procedure having been carried out. The government said she had changed her mind, but she denied this.
Dutton said that in Australia, Abyan would “speak to a doctor in terms of her termination but also to seek mental health services”.
In a statement, the Nauru government reacted angrily to media pressure for access to the island, saying it had responded to recent such calls with the message that “Nauru is not a state of Australia”.
Justice Minister David Adeang said Nauru had no obligations to answer the Australian media, many of whose questions were ridiculous.
“The Australian media approach us with great arrogance and an air of racial superiority, which is highly offensive to us,” he said. Many journalists would never accept the facts.
“The truth is that despite the difficulties many refugees face and the lack of certainty they feel about the future … Nauru is safe, refugees are not being raped, they have freedom, many are happy and making the best of their situation, and life on Nauru is peaceful with locals and refugees living, in the main, harmoniously.”
He said if Nauru allowed journalists to wander the small island refugees would, under the direction of Australian-based advocates, start to “riot for the cameras and there would be chaos”.
Michelle Gratton for The Conversation
Michelle Grattan AO is one of Australia’s most respected and awarded political journalists. She has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years, during which time she has covered all the most significant stories in Australian politics.