International rights group Amnesty International claims it has uncovered evidence suggesting Australian officials paid people smugglers to turn back a boat full of migrants attempting to reach New Zealand.
Released on October 28, the Amnesty International (AI) report, titled "By hook or by crook," examines Australia's policy of intercepting and pushing back boats carrying migrants on high seas.
The 38-page document focuses on an incident that took place in May 2015, when a boat transporting 65 migrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar to New Zealand was turned back by Australia.
By conducting interviews with the asylum seekers on board, the boat crew as well as the Indonesian police, the report's authors say they found evidence that Australian officials paid the migrant boat's six-member crew about $32,000 and told them to take the people to Indonesia instead.
The Australians reportedly also provided verbal instructions and maps showing the crew where to land in Indonesia, the rights group added. The report also raises questions about whether Australian officials paid money to the crew of another boat turned back in July.
'A lawless venture'
Furthermore, AI criticized Australia's efforts to control its maritime border as "a lawless venture with evidence of criminal activity, pay-offs to boat crews and abusive treatment of women, men and children seeking asylum."
"All of the available evidence points to Australian officials having committed a transnational crime by, in effect, directing a people-smuggling operation, paying a boat crew and then instructing them on exactly what to do and where to land in Indonesia," said AI Refugee Researcher Anna Shea.
"In the two incidents documented by AI, Australian officials also put the lives of dozens of people at risk by forcing them onto poorly equipped vessels. When it comes to its treatment of those seeking asylum, Australia is becoming a lawless state," she noted.
A tougher policy
Allegations that Australian authorities paid people smugglers initially emerged in June this year. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) raised similar concerns after speaking with people on the ship. But then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to respond to the allegations, saying he wouldn't comment on operational issues.
Australia's approach towards irregular migrants has come under increased scrutiny in recent times.
Under former PM Abbott, who was in office until September, the government hardened its asylum policy as part of its "Operation Sovereign Borders" initiative, and began to either push back the boats to Indonesia or to send the migrants to offshore detention centers on islands such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Last year, Australia also signed a deal with Cambodia to resettle asylum seekers there in exchange for millions of dollars.
The Australian government argues that this tough policy saves lives and prevents people smugglers from exploiting vulnerable and desperate migrants. Former PM Abbott even recently urged European countries, which are currently facing a refugee influx, to adopt similar policies to stem the flow of migrants.
Although rights groups acknowledge that Australia's approach has been ruthlessly effective in stopping boats packed with migrants from reaching the country's shores, they accuse Canberra of inhumane treatment of refugees and of failing to honor its international obligations.
Activists note that claims of abuse are rampant at the offshore detention sites, where hundreds of people - including women and children - are currently held.
An Australian senate committee, dominated by the country's opposition, recently lambasted the detention centers as unsafe for asylum seekers and called for the immediate removal of children from the controversial facilities.
Despite criticism from rights advocates, polls have consistently shown that a significant number of Australians approve of the government's tough stance.
This is why Australia's new PM, Malcolm Turnbull, has so far not announced any changes to the hard-line measures, even though he said he was "concerned" about the centers.