Calls grow for Australian boat payment inquiry

Boat of asylum seekers off Christmas Island (June 2012) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Australia has a zero tolerance approach to migrant boats approaching its territory

Pressure is growing for an inquiry into whether Australian officials used tax payers' money to turn back a boat carrying asylum seekers.

The opposition accused the government of misusing public funds, calling for a review by the chief auditor.

PM Tony Abbott has refused to deny allegations that officials handed over thousands of dollars to people smugglers trying to reach Australia.

The UN has expressed its alarm at the allegation, if indeed true.

It said UN staff had received reports that the crew of the boat had been given thousands of dollars last month by an Australian naval vessel to turn around to Indonesia.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption PM Tony Abbott said Australia had developed "incredibly creative" approaches to stopping asylum boats

On Saturday, the Indonesian government said that if Australia did pay to turn a boat full of asylum seekers back to Indonesia, it would mark "a new low" in its handling of immigration.

Foreign ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir also said Australia was on "a slippery slope" with regard to its push-back policy.

On Monday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten had written to the auditor general to request an investigation. The auditor general, if he takes up the case, can only review the financial propriety of the use of public funds.

What happened on the boat?

The migrants - from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka - were reportedly heading to New Zealand and are being held on the remote Rote island about 500km (310 miles) north-east of Australia.

They told police that an Australian navy ship intercepted them at sea, and an immigration official on board paid them each A$5,000 ($3,900; £2,500) to turn back to Indonesia.

Local police chief Hidayat told AFP news agency: "I saw the money with my own eyes. This is the first time I'd heard [of] Australian authorities making payments to boat crew."

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Radio New Zealand reported similar allegations from passengers.

What Tony Abbott's boat rhetoric is really about

Ministers in the Australian government have come out with varying responses. Some have denied the allegations, others refused to comment, while Immigration Minister Peter Dutton at first denied the allegation but then said the government did not comment on specific cases.

The leader of the Green Party has asked police to investigate whether bribing people smugglers would be in breach of Australian or international law.

Although the controversy continued through the weekend, the government has denied acting illegally.

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