Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris after a meeting with France's President on April 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTINSTEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images
U.N.: Australia paid migrant smugglers to turn back
02:45 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Australia Prime Minister refuses to comment on the claims, but says his country turns around "illegal boats"

U.N. refugee agency says it learned of payments from passengers on one boat

CNN  — 

Australian authorities paid smugglers to turn back a boat transporting migrants attempting to reach that nation, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday, citing people on the ship.

The boat – carrying 65 migrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar – was intercepted by the Indonesian navy after turning back from Australia on May 31, the UNHCR said.

The migrants were transferred to an Indonesian customs vessel for four days before being sent on two boats to Indonesia, the UNHCR added, after speaking to some of the passengers.

Australia has refused to confirm or deny the payment, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott went on the defensive Friday when asked about the claim. Abbott refused to “comment on operational matters,” but said that the government would stop the boats “by hook or by crook.”

Abbott said in an interview with Radio 3AW that Australia is “determined to ensure that illegal boats don’t get to Australia. We will do whatever is reasonably necessary to protect our country from people smuggling and from the effects of this evil and damaging trade that costs lives.”

When pressed further about whether Australia paid smugglers illegally transporting migrants, Abbott replied “what we do is we stop the boats by hook or by crook because that’s what we’ve got to do and that’s what we’ve successfully done.”

He said he didn’t want to discuss details about the interception, but said it was necessary and indicated it has been done more than once.

“It’s difficult and at times I suppose it’s dangerous work, but we deal with it and we’ve stopped the boats,” he said.

Abbott also refused to confirm if Australia would investigate the payment claim.

Meanwhile, the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service said that during the month of May “there were no illegal maritime arrivals.”