South east Asia migrant crisis
Thai fishermen (R) give some supplies to migrants on a boat drifting 17 km (10 miles) off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe, Thailand Reuters

A furore has broken out over allegations that Australia has paid off the crew of a boat carrying 65 migrants to return to Indonesian waters.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who did not deny the payment claims in a radio interview on 12 June, said border officials were being "incredibly creative" in coming up with responses to human trafficking.

Agence France Presse (AFP) says Abbott also dodged questions on the allegations at a subsequent news conference, saying: "We've used a whole range of measures to stop the boats because that's what the Australian people elected us to do."

Indonesia's Foreign Ministry has said it is "very concerned" over reports that police from the East Nusa Tenggara province found the boat's captain and five crew members had $30,000 (£20,000) in cash. The crew claimed they were paid to return the migrants to Indonesia after being intercepted by an Australian navy ship on 20 May.

Agus Barnas, spokesman for Indonesia's Co-ordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, said the Australian prime minister's comments could be construed as endorsing bribery and might encourage people smuggling.

"His statement is very unethical," said Agus.

Australia 'sending the wrong signal'

The BBC quoted James Lynch, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), as saying that passengers saw smugglers being paid by the Australian navy after the boat was intercepted.

He said the boat was rescued by the Indonesian navy and the agency had interviewed the passengers and "they have said that the crew received a payment."

Lynch said Australia had a responsibility under UN treaties, which it had signed, to see if any of the migrants were in need of international protection.

Australia is "sending the wrong signal" to other countries in the region, which the UN is trying to persuade to allow migrants to disembark, he said.