Australia crosses another red line in Vietnam refoulement


HMAS Choules 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 distress call; what had been the fate of the boat;  whether the people had sought refugee status; how, if at all, such requests had been assessed; what dialogue there might have been between Canberra and Hanoi on whether Vietnam would accept forcibly refouled people;  and what if any guarantees had been sought or received from Hanoi on their post-return treatment by Vietnamese authorities.

I waited for the wave of media interest and commentary.  None came. Fairfax political reporter Heath Aston added a little more detail on Friday: HMAS Choules was off the Vietnamese port city Vung Tao, and expected to hand over the people by Saturday.    News Limited reported that a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declined to comment citing ‘operational matters’.The ABC reported that the Defence Minister Kevin Andrews was referring questions to Dutton.

That was on Friday. On Monday, Dutton told the ABC he would ‘release details at an appropriate time’. Also on Monday, Opposition immigration spokesman, Richard Marles weighed in, telling the ABC that the minister’s secrecy represented a new low. He called on Dutton to explain what assessments of claims by asylum seekers had taken place and to guarantee they were undertaken individually. Marles told the ABC: ‘We need to have confidence that this government has not refouled people against the obligations of the UN convention.’

So another set of unanswered questions, reminiscent of the case of the unsuccessful attempted return to Sri Lanka or India of the 157 Tamils last year. Have the people yet been quietly landed in Vietnam, or is there some sort of diplomatic standoff?

Is Vietnam reluctant to give any publicity to accepting refouled asylum seekers, at this delicate time of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon? Or have the Vietnamese actually dug their heels in and refused to take them? If so, is Australia trying to embarrass them with publicity about HMAS Choules waiting offshore? Is money involved?

I am saddened that with Malcolm Fraser hardly cold in his grave, and with the special and heartfelt honour the Vietnamese Australian community paid him at his funeral, the present government has so cruelly and blatantly sought to refoul a group of people to the country they had apparently fled.

Another major red line crossed in the Australian Government’s violations of our country’s treaty obligations under the UN Refugee Conventions. Another cruel insult to Australia’s loyal Vietnamese-origin community (noting that many Vietnamese are in indefinite immigration detention awaiting deportation). Another body blow to Australian multiculturalism.

Where is the outrage?  Have we become so used to such border protection system cruelties we no longer have heart to protest or even  report them?

Tony KevinTony Kevin is a former diplomat.


Topic tags: Tony Kevin, asylum seekers, Malcolm Fraser, Vietnam, refoulement, HMAS Choules



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Existing comments

"Have we become so used to such border protection system cruelties we no longer have heart to protest or even report them?" No Tony, perhaps you could call it 'frustration fatigue'. Many of us who support ASRC and other bodies working for asylum seekers and refugees, argue in the various on-line media to which we subscribe, and participate in the Palm Sunday march and other street demonstrations for a humane asylum seeker policy, are blocked at every turn by an intransigent government and an opposition who behaved just as cruelly when they were in power. If the government check-mates us by changing the law every time they lose a hearing in the Federal or Supreme Court (Refer Justin Glyn’s "Excising the Rule of Law" in this current ES edition), where can we turn to find justice and decency for asylum seekers? Australia's treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat continues to bring shame on our country, and it appears there is precious little we citizens can do about it.

Ian Fraser | 21 April 2015  

What is missing from the Government’s “Stop the Boats” mantra is what the Government thinks should happen to the people who are turned back. Is the message that we are to take from this mantra one of as long as the plight of these people is not Australia’s problem then that is all that matters? Pope Francis: "Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own." If that is not the case, then what is the Government’s policy beyond its “Stop the Boats” mantra? It is rarely ever asked and as a result has got away with ignoring the Houston led Expert Panel recommendations. Brendan

Brendan McCarthy | 22 April 2015  

Official silence on a 50 asylum seekers. A trivial number compared with the 13000 Italy struggles with. We seem to have forgotten our international refugee obligations and we shroud our refugee dealings in a level of secrecy not known since WW2 - except it is a humanitarian situation not a war.

Eric | 22 April 2015  

Tony. The apples are the ones with shiny green or red skin. The oranges are not as shiny and are yellow or orange. Hope this helps.

john frawley | 22 April 2015  

If these brutes really wanted to stop the boats, then they'd allow for an orderly annual refugee intake from UNHCR camps, in return for which all so-called "unauthorised" arrivals would be despatched to dwell in such camps. To further discourage attempting boat arrival, all such persons could be designated "never to be permitted to enter Australia under any circumstances".

My thinking is that this way, people who need to flee their homelands and seek resettlement in Australia would flee to a UNHCR camp and initiate application to be resettled in Australia from there.

David Arthur | 22 April 2015  

A mostly factual update: it has been confirmed that the group of Vietnamese returnees were landed in Vietnam by HMAS Choules on Friday night. Presumably they did not reist - resistance at that stage would have been pointless. We are told by a spokesperson for Mr Dutton that there was an onboard refugee claim assessment process. The UNHCR has protested that the process should have been conducted individually and onshore- clearly, neither stipulation was satisfied. Finally, apparently the secrecy about the return was a Vietnamese Govt request. Perhaps they did not wish Vietnam to go down in history as the first country to which Australia has returned asylum seekers without a proper individual refugee claim assessment process. I call that refoulement. Perhaps John Frawley with his zen-like apples and oranges metaphor has another view?. I don't understand his metaphor. Perhaps John would like to enlighten ES readers further on his point here?

Tony Kevin | 22 April 2015  

Nice try at care David Arthur, but there are no actual designated UN camps for refugees to get to. The camps are in refugee countries, and if people are in the camps they have zero hope of Australia ever bothering with them.

Marilyn | 22 April 2015  

Tony. I was suggesting that perhaps this account had mixed up the apples with the oranges in its disjointedness. First, it seems that the new Vietnam is not persecuting its people and unless someone fears arrest for some transgression it is difficult to find a reason to take the risks that genuine refugees take. You suggest these people are fleeing a non-persecuting political system with which they disagree or are seeking better opportunities. I think the risks taken to escape the former are irrational and the latter the most likely, since the political system seems reasonably non-threatening. It may also be that many have relatives here and seek family reunion or the patent advantages their relatives have enjoyed since being resettled here after the war, also more likely and rational than seeking refuge from persecution. The reference to the Sri Lankan and Indian refusal to accept the returnees is irrelevant but surely means that neither government was interested in persecuting these people but was happy to see them go and didn't want them back. Perhaps they were Tamil terrorists and they didn't want them potentially causing more havoc If that is the case them we should hardly offer them citizenship here. An earlier contingent of some 800-odd Sri Lankans voluntarily returned home 18 months ago, clearly not facing retribution or persecution. Had that been the case they must surely have been deemed insane!! They were clearly, if logic were to apply, economic voluntary emigrants seeking admission to their chosen new country outside international guidelines for travel and settlement in another country. You have also today made the assumptions that our government must be wrong without any supporting fact or evidence. Perhaps the government gets it right sometimes. I am sure that when you were employed by a Labor government you acted as if they had got it right and many would say that they didn't always do so. The tunnel vision which sees no good of any sort in a non-Labor government which seems to be your defining position perhaps is also a little astray sometimes confusing apples with oranges. I doubt as you claim that this is another body blow to multiculturalism in Australia when our Vietnamese communities have been so successful and contributed so much, Did you ask them what they think? Such an enquiry would certainly be interesting and probably enlightening, I would certainly like to hear the view of the Australians of Vietnamese origin.

john frawley | 22 April 2015  

John Frawley drops so many factual clangers in his second letter it is like the bells of St Mary's going off at Easter Sunday Mass. Let's start with the point about wanting to hear what Vietnamese Australians think. Try Trung Doan, as reported here by the ABC. Trung Doan cites several good reasons why some Vietnamese might want to flee their country now - including Christian church persecution - notwithstanding the government's invitation to entrepreneurs to return. Fir balance, I actually started my piece with a quote from one of them - to the effect that as long as they keep their heads down and focus on business, the government will not harass them. Apparently for John Frawley, that's OK. E We simply don't know why these people want badly to leave, but John has the answer - they probably feared arrest for 'some transgression' . Oh well, refoulement after some sort of a Australian Navy mass kangaroo court at sea is OK then. And I see John has judged the 157 Tamils who neither India nor Sri Lanka wanted back to be terrorists. He must have very good sources to be so free with his judgements. As for his suggestion that I only criticise non-Labor government actions in this area, John must have a short memory. In these ES pages, I wrote a series of very strong critiques of incidents involving avoidable asylum- seeker deaths in Austraia's maritime approaches,m after border protection and maritime rescue authorities had turned a blind eye to their desperate telephoned or signalled appeals for help - on Labor's watch, John. Check the ES archive - it's all there.

Tony kevin | 22 April 2015  

The concept of refoulement is based on the assumption that returning refugees to the country from which they have fled will result in their further persecution This happened to Jews repatriated to Germany in the late 1930s by some western countries. Their prospects of persecution were clear and horribly well-founded, with few surviving the Nazi death camps. However, Australia’s failed asylum-seekers are hardly in that category. Firstly, about 90% are granted asylum – and this it seems is not because they were fleeing genuine persecution. It as administratively easier – because of the vast numbers of asylum-seekers to process - for Immigration Dept assessors to simply grant most of them asylum . (See “’Frauds granted refugee status” in The Australian, June 15-16/2013 and former foreign Minister Bob Carr’s comment that 90 per cent of asylum-seekers were economic migrants). Only blatant frauds and criminals etc are likely to be rejected – and then only some of them. This being the case returnees are very unlikely to face persecution on return – unless they are criminals fleeing their country as was Monis, the Iranian Lindt café terrorist (who incidently was granted asylum in Australia!) . The “refoulment” persecution that failed asylum-seekers would most likely face would be the wrath from those who had lent them the money to get to Australia, whether families, relatives and friends or money-lenders. The asylum-seekers’ game plan would presumably have been to pay everyone back once they got a well-paying job in Australia . But their failure to do this has meant they must shamefacedly return home and re-pay everyone – if they can. Here though the Australia Gov’t often helps out by giving them up to several thousand dollars in “resettlement” funds. Even so, it is still possible that such returnees may face some rough treatment from their own governments. If a returnee’s government knew he had been bad-mouthing it and falsely claiming it had persecuted him and had been denigrating its reputation internationally, then yes such a government might target him. But is that Australia’s problem? . . . .

Dennis | 23 April 2015  

Dennis, was the Vietnam civil war Australia's problem? Was Iraq Australia's problem? Was invading Turkey Australia's problem?

AURELIUS | 23 April 2015  

I am so deeply ashamed by the actions of our country towards those seeking asylum. All I see is selfishness and fear and a total lack of moral compass. What has happened to our ideals and compassion. I fear we have gone back to an Anglocentric Advance Australia Fair. We certainly don't know how to welcome those who come from foreign shores.

john | 23 April 2015  

I have to laugh at people like Dennis who claim our people are so hard up having to assess so many refugees. They are boasting about 5 million tourists visas for this year but still refuse to even look at a single refugee claim as they keep them in limbo jailed without process of any kind. Now Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Pakistan and other countries might claim to have a problem but if we can't manage 24,000 visas then it is because we are not trying.

Marilyn | 24 April 2015  

Perhaps ALL Aussies need to listen first to the still small voice of the Spirit within us ALL (and especially this Voice in our conscience, after reading of the RAN returning Vietnamese refugees). Then we will be prompted to ask the politicians of ALL parties, whom WE elected - "Please abide by UNHCR protocols on refugees to Australia." One day we will ALL be asked " What did YOU DO when you saw me naked, without food, clothing and a home to sleep in ?"

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 27 April 2015  

From comments on Facebook I have sadly noted that many Australians have no regard for asylum seekers, to the point of wishing them harm. Malcolm Fraser appealed to our better nature, not so recent governments. While the Coalition has taken their contempt to a higher level, I remember, on one of Julia Gilliard's first public speeches as prime minister, that she encouraged Australians to show their concern for border protection. I was appalled and still am.

Anna | 27 April 2015  

You may well laugh Marilyn but processing tourist visas is a somewhat less demanding process than assessing asylum-seeker claims. The Australian June 2013 article quotes a former Refugee Review Tribunal whose job was to review Immigration Dept decisions rejecting applicants’ claim to asylum. If he upheld the department’s decision to reject any such claim he had to write 20 to 40 pages justifying his decision as it was certain to be appealed to the high courts [probably largely because of the asylum-seeker lobby]. If he overturned the department’s decision he need write only one page and no one would ever review or question his decision. And while no one ever told him to decide in favour of asylum claimants there was overwhelming pressure for him to clear numbers as quickly as possible. Any delays in processing would result in the build-up of a new backlog. At that time (mid-2013) refugee acceptance rates were 95% after all levels of review. He added: “I would sometimes receive a completely compelling story that was impossible to refuse. The problem is that I receive the identical story a hundred times over, with only the names changed. People on Christmas Island would tell me to my face they had copied their story from someone else.” The Australian article also quoted a report by a former senior Immigration officer who said:” I can confidently say we are approving large numbers of people who are fabricating claims, and indeed the current refugee determination system works in favour of those who are most adept at spinning a yarn.” He also said that the main aim of asylum claimants was “to obtain the right to work in Australia” to send money back to their families and repay loans for their travel to Australia.

Dennis | 28 April 2015  

Aurelius: What is your point?

Dennis | 28 April 2015  

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