UNHCR Condemns ‘Cash-For-Boat Turn Back’


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) representative, Thomas Vargas, has called for legal retribution and condemnation of governments that make payments to smugglers.

Amnesty International alleges that Australian officials who paid people smugglers to return to Indonesia have committed transnational crimes. The organization has released a report detailing evidence of Australian Navy and Border Force officials intercepting a smuggling boat carrying 60 people and 6 crew en route to New Zealand and inducing the crew to turn back.

The benevolent operation began with an act of kindness whereby the people were encouraged to bathe on the ship. This act of kindness took a quick turn, both literally and metaphorically, as the crew claim the Australian officials offered them $32,000 USD to turn the boat around.

The Amnesty report makes a recommendation for a royal commission into these payments and other payments which have allegedly occurred.

Mr. Vargas expresses that any nation paying people smugglers should be brought to justice either in their domestic realm or in an international court. However, the prolonged and ineffective international regimes have proven that international enforcement is limited, despite public outcry.

 “Any country that pays smugglers breaks the law, it is as simple as that”, Mr. Vargas stated. “To turn around and smuggle people to another country — that is illegal. So whoever does it, an individual or a country or a government, it doesn’t matter, it is illegal.”

The captain and crew in the ‘cash-for-boat turn back’ scandal have since been jailed and charged for smuggling people.

Such action could, as a 2016 interim Senate inquiry report indicates, involve abusive breaches on both Australian and International legal sphere.

Amnesty International claims their data proves a breach of international law in that the Australian officials have legally orchestrated and directed the crew to commit a people-smuggling offence. The payment of money will constitute a financial benefit to the crew as accomplices in the transnational crime of people smuggling. Among the people involved in the incident were asylum seekers and the rejection these people constitutes a failure to assess each person’s situation, including potential human rights violations.

In response, government ministers have issued dissenting reports and consistently reassured the public that the government and its officers did not act illegally. However, the government has never denied the occurrence of the payment itself. The technicality lies in that the senior ministers have denied the involvement of Border Force and Defence Force officials but such denial has not extended to the possible involvement of intelligence officials. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop explicitly denied the allegations, commenting: “Australian officials are acting in accordance with Australian domestic law and in accordance with Australia’s international obligations.”

“I’m just telling you that anyone who engages in behaviour where you are paying smugglers to smuggle people to another destination should face the full brunt of the law and full prosecution of the law,” Vargas said.

Meanwhile, in desperation to rid the boat people epidemic, Australia has cruelly foregone the human rights and safety of asylum seekers by inducing the turning around of the boats. Although the international arena lack enforcement in its policies, the Australian government nevertheless faces international condemnation and sanctioning for their treatment of asylum seekers.

Karen Cheung