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Australia allegedly complicit in people-smuggling

    June 18, 2015

    Amnesty International Australia Release

    Amnesty International is deeply concerned at recent allegations that Australian officials paid people-smugglers tens of thousands of dollars to return a boat carrying 65 asylum-seekers to Indonesia. If true, these actions would be in blatant violation of Australia’s international legal obligations.

    The alleged events are detailed in documents provided to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) by the Head of Public Relations at the East Nusa Tenggara province police headquarters commissioner Ronalzie Agus. Indonesian authorities based this information on interviews with six witnesses as well as the captain and crew of the boat.

    Alleged payment to send asylum-seekers to Indonesia

    In May 2015, 65 asylum-seekers (10 Bangladeshis, 54 Sri Lankans, and one passenger from Myanmar) boarded a boat and attempted to reach New Zealand. After being intercepted twice by Australian authorities and taken to Australian waters, an Australian customs official allegedly paid a total of USD 31,000 to Captain Yohanis Humiang and his crew, to take the asylum-seekers back to Indonesia. Australian officials also reportedly provided the two wooden boats used to transport these people.

    Eventually one of the boats was abandoned when it ran out of fuel, and the single vessel containing all the asylum-seekers and crew crashed on Landu Island in East Nusa Tenggara province on 31 May 2015, where local villagers rescued them. According to ABC, the crew are now in custody and the asylum-seekers are being held by Indonesian immigration authorities in a hotel in Kupang, the capital of East Nusa Tenggara.

    Indonesian officials have reacted angrily to the reported incident, and Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refused to deny these extremely serious allegations.

    Possible breach of international law

    If Australia was indeed complicit in people-smuggling, it will have breached a range of binding international legal obligations. Smuggling of persons is a transnational organized criminal activity. As a signatory to the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, Australia has committed to combatting smuggling, which is defined at Article 3 as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.” At Article 6, the Protocol sets out other ways in which a person can be found guilty of people-smuggling, such as participating as an accomplice, or organizing or directing others to commit this offence.

    The Protocol also requires states parties to protect the human rights of smuggled migrants. Among these fundamental entitlements are the right to seek asylum, the ban on torture, and the protection against being sent to a place where one is at risk of serious human rights violations. These are protected by international human rights instruments that Australia has ratified, such as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Additionally, the Refugee Convention forbids states parties from punishing asylum-seekers for the manner of their arrival to a country.

    Independent inquiry necessary

    As a matter of urgency, Amnesty International is calling on the Australian government to immediately launch an independent inquiry into these events, and if the allegations are proven, to hold accountable those responsible and ensure that the incident does not recur.

    Independent of this alleged incident, the way Australia treats asylum seekers already falls far short of its international obligations, and exposes people to grave danger. All asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are automatically detained in offshore processing centres including Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). In recent years there have been reports of sexual violence against women and children on Nauru, and two asylum seekers held on Manus Island in PNG have been killed or died of treatable medical conditions.

    Global refugee crisis

    Amnesty International also urges Australia to follow the eight recommendations aimed at the entire international community – as outlined in the organisation’s June 2015 report on the global refugee crisis, which has seen over 50 million people displaced from their homes.

    Sixty years ago Australia helped draft the Refugee Convention, and was one of the first countries to sign it. Rather than looking to shirk its responsibilities, Australia needs to once more show leadership, contributing to a global response that prioritises not only protection, but human life and human dignity.


    For further information, please contact Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations 416-363-9933 ext 332