JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — An Indonesian official on Friday criticized Australia's prime minister as "unethical" for sidestepping allegations the Australian navy paid the crew of a boat carrying 65 migrants to return to Indonesian waters.
Indonesia's foreign ministry has said it is "very concerned" by a report from police in East Nusa Tenggara province that the boat's captain and five crew members detained on remote Rote island had about $30,000 in cash. The group said they were paid to return the migrants to Indonesia after being intercepted by an Australian navy ship on May 20.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not deny the payment claim in a radio interview Friday. He said border officials are being "incredibly creative" in coming up with responses to human trafficking.
Agus Barnas, spokesman for Indonesia's coordinating ministry for political, legal and security affairs, said Abbott's comments could be interpreted by Australian officials as endorsing bribery and might encourage people smuggling.
"His statement is very unethical," Barnas said.
The sharp rhetoric from Jakarta is the latest flaring of tension over Australia's policy of turning back and refusing to settle 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 also dodged questions about the allegation during a subsequent news conference. Asked whether the government had paid people smugglers to turn back boats, he replied, "We've used a whole range of measures to stop the boats because that's what the Australian people elected us to do."
Australian opposition lawmakers jumped on the controversy, accusing the government of creating an incentive for people smugglers.
Such people "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 is embroiled in a broader migrant crisis. Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and Bangladeshis looking for a better life abroad have landed in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Indonesian 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. A pregnant woman and children were among those on board.
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.
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.