Australia is paying hundreds of millions of dollars to have asylum seekers detained on Nauru.
Australia is paying hundreds of millions of dollars to have asylum seekers detained on Nauru. Photo: Angela Wylie
The alleged authorisation of cash payments to people smugglers during a recent boat turn-back operation adds to a growing list of unethical and damaging "by hook or by crook" asylum-seeker strategies adopted by the Australian government since Tony Abbott came to office.
Dubious activities to disrupt people trafficking are not new. Nor is the secrecy surrounding these operations. Over many years, reports suggest payments to informants and other covert operations in the region have been practised by both major parties.
The argument that we have to be cruel and crooked to save lives at sea is one of the great political lies of our time. 
But handing over bundles of cash at sea to the people Abbott constantly refers to as "evil" takes us into more dangerous territory. If true, it means the government is not only risking lives at sea with its crude turn-back operations, it is now directly funding its own version of an unsafe people-smuggling venture.
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food dropped by a Thai army helicopter.
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food dropped by a Thai army helicopter. Photo: AFP
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key this week said the boat had been on its way to New Zealand and had put out a mayday call. He said there were sick people on board. But instead of offering humanitarian aid and safe transport to land, Australian authorities instead provided insufficient provisions for the return journey. One of the boats ran out of fuel and the other reportedly crashed on to a reef at Landu Island.
One Indonesian official called it "a suicide mission". Many on board were able to swim ashore, but women and children were stranded and had to be rescued. "They looked exhausted," the Rote police chief said. "One female passenger is pregnant; we took her immediately to the hospital, but she is OK now."
It is only fortunate no one died as a result of the Australian operation.
Abbott's recent "nope, nope, nope" response to refugees starving on boats in our region was a stark signpost to the moral vacuum that now passes for policy in Australia. As images emerged of terrified toddlers desperate for food and water, of Rohingya refugees swimming for food dropped by helicopters not intending to rescue them, Australia's belligerent rhetoric ultimately separated us from the regional and global pack. Australia's inhumane response to the suffering and deaths of those human beings left in tatters government claims that stopping boats was ever about saving lives at sea.
The levels of abuse inflicted on women, children and men detained in the Australian-run Nauru detention centres have gone beyond shocking. The murder of Reza Barati in Papua New Guinea, along with the neglect and abuse of other men inside the Manus centre, has perhaps been worse. Australia's corrupted and soulless approach to asylum seekers also includes a blind-eye approach to human rights abuses and corruption in countries willing to take our cash and do our dirty work.
Recently aired bribery claims involving Nauruan politicians should be a matter of great concern for all Australians. Australia is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the country where people are detained on our behalf. But many questions remain unanswered on where money is ending up and around the increasingly undemocratic Nauru governance Australian money supports.
Sam Koim, chairman of the PNG anti-corruption taskforce (now without funding after allegations of corruption made against Prime Minister Peter O'Neill), wrote this week "to remain a corruption-free trading partner in the region, Australia needs to show the way in dealing with bribery allegations such as this [in Nauru], even if it comes at a cost". 
But the leadership and integrity Koim is calling for in Australia has long gone out the window, along with millions of Australian dollars, in the name of stopping the boats. In 2011, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer raised concerns that having a detention centre in PNG gave the PNG government "considerable leverage over us". The hundreds of millions of dollars in aid we provided to PNG should, Downer believed, instead be giving us leverage to improve their governance and corruption.
The cost of Australia's refugee resettlement deal with Cambodia – a country described by Cambodian Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy as "one of the world's most corrupt countries" – has now reached $55.5 million. But of the nearly 500 assessed refugees in Nauru, only four have so far taken up the offer. Rainsy has also noted that incoming money from foreign sources will likely "be diverted and channelled into the pocket of our corrupt leaders with very little, if any, benefit to the ordinary people".
Earlier this year, Sri Lanka's new leader Ranil Wickremesinghe revealed the price of a stop-the-boats deal under the previous Sri Lankan government had been Australia's silence on human rights abuses – in my view, one of the lowest and most shameful acts we have seen from an Australian government.
These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, policies or practices that reflect how most Australians think of themselves. Which is why the Abbott government keeps most of its unethical dealings and operations away from public view. If Australians were aware of what goes on during ugly boat-turn backs, or if they were told exactly whose pockets their taxpayer dollars were lining, support for Abbott's "by hook or by crook" approach might fray.
The argument that we have to be cruel and crooked to save lives at sea is one of the great political lies of our time. Australians now need to say enough is enough and pressure politicians to invest energy and money into more humane long-term approaches. Approaches that have been outlined many times by researchers and experts in the area of asylum and refugee policy. Approaches that don't require the sale of our souls or the destruction of human lives. Approaches that reflect who we want to be as a people and as a country.
Susan Metcalfe is the author of The Pacific Solution.