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Australia crosses another red line in Vietnam refoulement

  • 22 April 2015

The 40th Anniversary of the fall of Saigon, on 30 April 1975, is fast approaching: a meaningful day both for the people of Vietnam, and for the Vietnamese diaspora around the world.

For the former, the end of a terrible decades-long war which ravaged their country and maimed so many lives. For the latter, a sad anniversary marking forced emigration and exile from a country and culture irreparably lost.

Slowly, the emotional wounds are healing with time. The business-friendly Vietnamese communist government is putting out the welcome mat for overseas Vietnamese to return there on family reunion holidays, or even (if they have capital and/or skills) to live and work. As one Vietnamese entrepreneur who successfully returned from Britain told the Financial Times recently:

The reality is that once the government knows you’re here to do business, they leave you alone.

And yet, it seems, some people still try to flee Vietnam, either as political refugees or perhaps in search of better opportunities.

The Australian Government has found its own egregious way to commemorate the anniversary. Last Friday 17 April, Nick Butterly of the West Australian broke a remarkable story from Canberra: that HMAS Choules (pictured) was currently standing off the Vietnamese coast, in an operation to hand back to Vietnam a group of almost 50 asylum seekers. They were ‘believed to have been intercepted by Customs and Navy vessels earlier in April, north of Australia’.

It was unclear ‘whether HMAS Choules had already handed them over to Vietnamese authorities or whether they were still in the process of being transferred’. The weeklong return voyage of HMAS Choules to Vietnam to return the asylum seekers was estimated to cost at least $1.4 million each way.

I would guess this story was officially leaked to the West Australian, perhaps as a way of putting pressure on Vietnam to accept the returnees. It seems hardly credible that the government would mount a costly $2.8 million voyage without first checking that the people would be accepted by Hanoi.

But that was Scott Morrison’s working style with the 157 Tamils last year, who after being taken all the way back from Australian waters were in the end were not accepted by Sri Lanka or India. So maybe Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has endorsed the same risky crash-through-or-crash rulebook?

Friday’s leaked story was silent on important questions:  whether the boat had been intercepted in Australian or international waters; whether there had been any