SYDNEY (AP) — Australia's prime minister on Friday sidestepped charges that officials from his country paid the crew of a boat carrying 65 migrants to return to Indonesian waters, but said Australia had to be creative to stop the flow of boats carrying asylum seekers to its shores.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's comments come one day after Indonesia's Foreign Ministry said it was "very concerned" by the allegations that Australia had paid off the crew of the boat, which had several children and a pregnant woman on board, to return to Indonesia.
Police in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province said the boat's captain and five crew members detained on remote Rote island said they were each paid $5,000 after being intercepted by an Australian navy ship on May 20.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said the Indonesian government was concerned that if such payments were happening, they could encourage human trafficking.
Australia has a policy of turning back and refusing to resettle any migrant who arrives on its shores by boat. Migrants escaping poverty or oppression use Indonesia as a transit point for the perilous journey in often barely seaworthy vessels to Australia.
Abbott did not deny the allegation when questioned on Radio 3AW on Friday. He said Australia's border protection officials have been "incredibly creative" in coming up with strategies to stop people smuggling.
"By hook or by crook we are gonna stop the trade," Abbott said. "We have stopped the trade and we will do what we have to do to ensure that it stays stopped."
Abbott again dodged questions about the allegations during a subsequent press conference. Asked directly whether the government had paid people smugglers to turn back boats, he replied, "What the government has done is stop the boats.... And we've used a whole range of measures to stop the boats because that's what the Australian people elected us to do."
Australia's opposition lawmakers jumped on the controversy, accusing the government of creating an incentive for people smugglers.
"(People smugglers) should be facing prosecution with the full force of the law, not be put in a situation that when they turn up aside an Australian Navy vessel, they are in effect next to a floating ATM," said Richard Marles, immigration spokesman for the opposition Labor Party.
The allegation comes as Southeast Asia, meanwhile, is embroiled in a broader migrant crisis as Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and Bangladeshis looking for a better life abroad have landed in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Police said the boat was carrying 65 migrants, mainly from Sri Lanka and a fewer number from Bangladesh, and was attempting to reach New Zealand.
According to the account given to police by the detained crew, their vessel was boarded off Christmas Island in Australian waters by a navy officer who spoke Indonesian and negotiated their return to Indonesian territory. Australian authorities provided two different boats along with enough fuel and food to return to Indonesian waters, the crew said, according to police.
Christmas Island is 1,090 kilometers (675 miles) southwest of Rote island in central Indonesia.
Hidayat, a local police chief on Rote, said the migrants came ashore on May 31 after locals reported the boats stranded in nearby waters. They were taken to an immigration detention center in the provincial capital Kupang on Tuesday.
"I saw the money and even counted it together with the crew during interrogation," said Hidayat, who uses one name. "But I don't want to speculate before the investigation is complete."
Arrmanatha, the Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman, said children including three of a very young age and a pregnant woman were among the migrants.
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.