SYDNEY: Australian spies and police have reportedly been paying off the region's people smuggling rings for years as part of a hard-line approach to illegal immigration.
Officials have been accused of paying pounds 19,000 to people smugglers last month to turn back to Indonesia a boatload of 65 migrants. The alleged payments have been labelled "state bribery" by the Indonesian government, and legal experts have said Australian officials could be charged with human trafficking.
Tony Abbott, Australia's prime minister, has repeatedly refused to deny that Australia made the payments, saying he would not comment on "operational details".
However, reports have emerged that the intelligence services have been making such payments for years, including during the term of the previous Labor government.
Australia's Fairfax Media cited multiple sources who claimed "the practice of intelligence agency officials paying members of people-smuggling networks, including boat owners and crews, goes back to about 2010 under the then [Kevin] Rudd government".
"Instances include paying members of syndicates for information about the operations of the syndicate, or to dissuade them from launching boats," it reported.
Gen Endang Sunjaya, an Indonesian police chief investigating the incident last month, said the six crew members aboard the boat had sworn under oath that they received about pounds 3,000 each from an Australian official to return to Indonesia. He said the official was not in uniform and went back and forth between Australian navy and customs ships.
"We believe the payments happened," Gen Endang told Fairfax Media. "They all said the same thing. They were paid by Australian officials to return to Indonesia... If it happened in Indonesia it would constitute a bribe."
The payments were also reportedly witnessed by several of the asylum-seekers, who were from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma.
Bill Shorten, the opposition leader, insisted Labor had not paid people-smugglers to turn back boats but would not comment on whether the intelligence services had made payments to smuggling rings to thwart their operations.
In 2009, Labor increased funding to the intelligence services to operate abroad to try to disrupt people-smuggling rings. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Australia's foreign spy agency, said on its website that it was involved in the effort against "transnational issues such as people-smuggling".
Mr Abbott was elected in 2013 with a pledge to "stop the boats" and has adopted some of the world's toughest measures to asylum-seekers, including detaining all arrivals in remote offshore detention centres.
In a stinging criticism of Mr Abbott's approach, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticised Australia's practice of turning back boats in international waters and accused Australia of setting a "poor benchmark" for other nations in the region.
"Given that most of today's Australians themselves descend from migrants - and given that the country maintains sizable regular programmes for migration and resettlement - I am bewildered by the hostility and contempt for these women, men and children that is so widespread among the country's politicians," he said at a forum in Geneva.