Kupang (Indonesia) (AFP) - The captain and crew of a boat carrying 65 asylum-seekers say Australian authorities paid them thousands of dollars to turn around and return to Indonesian waters, police said Wednesday.
The migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka came ashore on Rote island in eastern Indonesia in late May, after they were intercepted en route to New Zealand by the Australian navy.
The captain and five boat crew, who are all being detained in Rote on people-smuggling charges, told police they were each paid US$5,000 by an Australian immigration official to turn back to Indonesia, local police chief Hidayat told AFP.
"They were then told to take two smaller boats and turn back into Indonesia after the money changed hands," Hidayat said.
"I saw the money with my own eyes. This is the first time I'd heard Australian authorities making payments to boat crew."
The office of Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Wednesday declined to comment on the allegations.
"The Australian Government does not comment on or disclose operational details where this would prejudice the outcome of current or future operations," it said in a statement.
The migrants, including women and children who are being housed in a small hotel in the eastern Indonesian city of Kupang, have corroborated the account given by the crew.
Nazmul Hasan, a Bangladeshi migrant acting as the group's spokesman, told AFP they realised something had happened when the boat charted a new course.
"We knew that the crew received money when we asked the captain why we were not continuing our journey to Australia," he said.
"He told us that he received some money from the Australian authorities."
Australia's conservative government introduced tough immigration policies in 2013 to stop an influx of would-be refugees. Asylum-seekers arriving on vessels are sent to Pacific camps and vessels are turned back when it is safe to do so, or taken back to their country of origin.
The new arrivals in eastern Indonesia came as Southeast Asia grappled with a separate human-trafficking crisis, which saw thousands of migrants come ashore after a Thai crackdown threw the illicit trade into chaos.
Around 1,800 Rohingya from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshis arrived in Indonesia's Aceh province last month alone, while others landed in Malaysia and Thailand.