Australian officials have reportedly paid thousands of dollars to the captain and crew of a refugee boat that was carrying asylum seekers, who were then ordered to return to Indonesia, according to passengers and an Indonesian police chief.
One of the Indonesian captains on board a refugee boat said that they were detained by Australian customs officials in late May and were returned to the island of Rote.
Hidayat, an Indonesian police chief on the island of Rote, was told by the captain and crew that they were given $5,000 for each member. The customs officer, named Agus, spoke fluent Indonesian.
The crew had told the officials that if they were to turn back they would be arrested by Indonesia for human trafficking. However, after the captain met with the customs officials, he said that they had to turn back as Australia will "pay" for them.
"I saw the money with my own eyes. This is the first time I'd heard Australian authorities making payments to boat crew," Hidayat told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The boat had enough supplies to last the trip to New Zealand. This was burnt by the customs officers, and the crew and passengers were given two smaller boats with limited fuel supply and dried goods for the journey.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has denied the claims. However, in a letter to the New Zealand government, the 65 asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar who were later detained, corroborated the story.
The crew were arrested when they arrived at Rote and are currently being processed for people-smuggling offences.
Australia's policy of forcing migrants back has been condemned internationally. The United Nations said the tow-back operations were in breach of Australia's obligations as a signatory of the Refugee Convention.
Meanwhile, a Myanmar national has been arrested in Thailand for allegedly smuggling seven illegal migrants and giving bribes to officials at various checkpoints on the border, as the country's navy ends a migrant mission.
The Thai navy started a humanitarian assistance mission for Rohingya refugees two-week ago.
Southeast Asia has grappled with a human-trafficking crisis in recent months, which saw thousands of mostly long-persecuted stateless Rohingya migrants come ashore after a Thai crackdown threw the illicit trade into chaos.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar arrived in Indonesia's Aceh province, Malaysia and Thailand last month, while the UN estimates around 2,000 are still stranded at sea.
The Rohingya suffers discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and are denied citizenship. Tens of thousands have fled the country after Buddhist attacks in 2012 killed hundreds. Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last month to give the refugees temporary asylum.