JAKARTA • The captain of an asylum-seeker boat allegedly intercepted by the Australian navy has told a court how he negotiated a hefty payment to take the migrants back to Indonesia to avoid going home "empty-handed".
Yohanis Humiang, a 35-year- old Indonesian, is being charged with people smuggling after Australian officials allegedly stopped his boat in May and paid him and his crew US$32,000 (S$45,000) to return to Indonesia.
Five crew members are being tried in a separate trial on Rote island, eastern Indonesia. All six face a minimum of five years in jail and maximum of 15 if found guilty.
Claims that Australia paid to turn the asylum seekers back to Indonesia renewed tensions over the issue of migrant boats, a flashpoint between the neighbours.
Humiang yesterday told the court how his boat, carrying 65 migrants, most of them Sri Lankans, was intercepted on its way to New Zealand, and he was taken aboard an Australian navy ship.
"I was interrogated," Humiang said, adding that he negotiated for 30 minutes with officials before the payment was agreed.
"The money was given to us to take the migrants back to Indonesia, and to be honest, I need the money - that's the very reason I took this job... I can't go home empty-handed," he added.
Humiang said he and a senior crew member got US$6,000 each, while the other four crew members shared US$20,000.
He said he took the money and agreed to take the migrants back to Indonesia because he had not yet been paid by the people smuggler who had arranged for him to take the group to New Zealand.
In June, after his arrest, Humiang had told how the crew and migrants were not allowed to make the return journey in their own boat, which was seized by the Australians, but were put into two "unseaworthy" wooden vessels. The crew and migrants arrived on a small island near Rote after being turned back.
Australia's hard-line policy of turning back boats has largely stemmed the flow of asylum seekers, but some still try to make the journey. Last week, 16 asylum seekers arrived in Indonesia after being turned back by the Australian navy, Indonesian police said.
The trial came as the International Organisation for Migration urged South-east Asian countries to treat migrants landing on their shores humanely and avoid a repeat of this year's disaster in which hundreds of refugees were either lost at sea or died in jungle camps.
October and November mark the start of the four-month "sailing season", the busiest time for people-smuggling ships plying the Bay of Bengal.
A Nov 23 letter from Thailand's Foreign Affairs Ministry to international organisations said a migration meeting to be held tomorrow was the country's "proactive step to pre-empt any possible recurrence of humanitarian crises of May 2015".
Thailand's Interpol director, Police Major-General Apichart Suribunya, said ships were now bypassing Thailand and heading directly to Malaysia following the Thai crackdown. "Malaysia is having a headache," he said.
Since late September, when monsoon conditions began to subside, 1,000 passengers have been smuggled across the Bay of Bengal, according to the UN refugee agency and the migration-tracking group Arakan Project.
South-east Asian nations agreed to help vulnerable "boat people" stranded at sea following last year's crisis that saw more than 4,000 migrants land in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh following a Thai crackdown on people-smuggling gangs. Hundreds drowned in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE