SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Wednesday rejected claims by a group of asylum seekers that they were beaten and suffered burns while being returned to Indonesia by the Australian navy under a policy that has strained ties between the countries.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Tuesday aired video of asylum seekers getting treatment for burns they said were caused by navy personnel forcing them to hold onto hot pipes coming out of their boat’s engine while it was being towed back to Indonesian waters.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison lashed out at the media for reporting what he called “unsubstantiated allegations” and said that he would conduct no investigation into the incident as he accepted the word of navy personnel.
“The Australian government is not going to put up with people sledging (verbally abusing) the Australian navy,” he told reporters in Sydney. “I’ve been given assurances about their conduct and I believe those assurances because I believe in those individuals.”
Indonesian police confirmed that a group of asylum seekers had required treatment for severe burns on their hands after they were picked up in Indonesian waters on January 6.
“I received a report from police in Kupang that they said they were burned because they were forced to hold on to the boat engine,” said Agus Barnas, spokesman for the coordinating ministry of legal, political and security affairs.
“They said they were forced by the Australians. We are trying to find out more.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was asked at a news conference on a visit to Washington whether Australia would be willing to accept an Indonesia invitation to send officials to review the evidence.
“I cannot imagine for a moment that the professional people that we have in our forces would have behaved in that fashion,” she said. “But of course if there is any cooperation that we can extend to ensure that these allegations are scotched, then we would be prepared to do it.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s conservative government came to power last September partly because of its tough position on asylum seekers. It maintains offshore detention centers in the impoverished nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru that hold thousands of asylum seekers.
The number of refugees reaching Australia pales in comparison with other countries, but it is a polarizing political issue that also stokes tension with Indonesia.
Relations between the countries have been prickly over Abbott’s pledges to break the business of people traffickers operating from Indonesian ports.
Ties hit a 13-year low late last year after media reports that Australia had tapped the phones of top Indonesians, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.
Australia apologized to Indonesia last week for naval breaches of its territory as part of Canberra’s policy of stopping boats carrying would-be asylum seekers.
Abbott, in the Swiss resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum, said on Tuesday that Australia stood by its policies.
“For us, stopping the boats is a matter of sovereignty and President Yudhoyono, of all people, ought to understand, does understand, just how seriously countries take their sovereignty,” Abbott told reporters. “So we will continue to do what we are entitled to do to secure our borders.”
Those comments prompted an angry Indonesian response.
“The government of Australia under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott also should understand the meaning of Indonesian sovereignty, which has been violated by the Australian navy,” Djoko Suyanto, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said in a statement.
The incident comes as U.S.-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, in its 700-page annual World Report, issued a blistering assessment of Australia’s asylum seeker policy.
“Successive governments have prioritised domestic politics over Australia’s international legal obligations to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees,” it said.
Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Ron Popeski and Steve Orlofsky