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Seeking Asylum


Photo taken secretly by a detainee at a peaceful protest in Yongah Hill Detention Centre on September 5, 2013, following the visit from the Vietnamese police. Those assembled also prayed for their families in Vinh, who reported a crackdown on Catholics at the same time.

Operation Enhanced Screenings

Interrogated without a lawyer and sent back en masse to the country they risked their lives to flee — Australia is expanding its controversial fast-track “enhanced screening process”.

As many as 30 unaccompanied Vietnamese men were deported from Perth this week – most of them after only a single interview with two immigration officials, without a lawyer present.

The move signals that Australia’s controversial “enhanced screening process” – previously known to be applied to Sri Lankan asylum seekers – is now being broadened to include Vietnamese.

Most Vietnamese nationals held in Australian immigration detention are seeking asylum on the basis of religious or political persecution; they cite abuses against Catholics and dissidents in their homeland, a single-party Communist state.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has confirmed to refugee advocates names of at least 20 deportees. Some of the men were transferred from detention in Darwin to Western Australia’s Yongah Hill detention centre immediately before the removal process began.

At least some of those deported had also been interviewed two months ago, with the permission of the Australian government, by Vietnamese officers from Section A18 of the Ministry of Public Security. Officially, the A18 is Vietnam’s Office of Controlling Exit and Entry, but it is widely known as a secret police force that also monitors and disciplines Vietnamese citizens.

On Wednesday, an advocate contacted to confirm the reports told The Global Mail:

“It seems they were bussed out of [Yongah Hill] last night and don’t know what happened next, but can only imagine they are back in [Vietnam] by now. People are in shock. I have various reports of 20 or 25 or 30 or 40, don’t know. Some say they were mainly people who were exposed to the [Vietnamese] police and signed something with them. They were coerced into signing things they didn’t understand – it is just bad news.

“[The immigration department] has only acknowledged receiving lawyer/advocate requests to talk to them before their deportation, but no actual news of what happened to them, and no contact was made.

“The closest equivalent in the criminal justice system would be if a police officer conducted the initial police interview of a suspect without a lawyer present, decided that the suspect was guilty and so dispensed with the courts …”

“Very wishful thinking is that they could be on [Christmas Island] but I think I am deceiving myself with this small chance of hope. So they were given no notice at all, and were not allowed to call or talk to anyone once they were locked in the room. Information blackout for them and us.”

Around the time of the A18 interviews at the detention centre, one Vietnamese detainee tried to hang himself and another five successfully escaped, though they were later recaptured.

All of the unaccompanied Vietnamese men deported this week had signed protection-request forms, asking to be represented by the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre (RILC), according to asylum-seeker advocates.

Under the “enhanced screening process”, introduced a year ago by the Labor government, two officials from Australia’s immigration department conduct an initial interview with asylum seekers – who may not be informed of their legal rights – and, on the basis of that interview, decide whether they are eligible to make a claim for refugee status. If the answer is no, they are scheduled for deportation.

Rachel Ball, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre said: “The closest equivalent in the criminal justice system would be if a police officer conducted the initial police interview of a suspect without a lawyer present, decided that the suspect was guilty and so dispensed with the courts, judges, juries, rules of evidence and appeals mechanisms and just sent the accused to prison.”

More than 1,000 Sri Lankans have already been deported under this process, according to a critical Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report released on October 22. The report raises several concerns with the enhanced screening process, including its failure to offer detainees legal representation or other normal safeguards, such as a written record of the reasons for the decision, and the fact that the screening interviews, “may be brief and not sufficiently detailed or probing to ensure that all relevant protection claims are raised”.

The UNHCR has labelled the enhanced screening process “unfair and unreliable”.

Shayla Strapps, CEO and principal solicitor of the Perth-based organisation CASE For Refugees, told The Global Mail: “I’m not sure what label government is putting on this process. Enhanced screening was essentially brought in for Sri Lankans. They [the government] just say they are trying to move those with no claim offshore quickly.”

Strapps adds, “Our concern is in relation to those who have been screened out – with no access to lawyers, there is a serious risk of refoulement.” Under the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which Australia has signed, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

The RILC frequently intervenes on behalf of screened-out asylum seekers who it deems have a legitimate case for protection. The Global Mail has spoken to one Vietnamese family in a Darwin immigration facility, who were saved from imminent deportation thanks to the intervention of the centre, following initial intervention by advocacy groups.

“They [immigration] did it on a weekend and they didn’t have request forms signed so we didn’t have time to get to them.”

Perth-based Vietnamese community leader Nam Pham calls advocates’ work with asylum seekers “a race against time”. He cites the example of two brothers recently deported from Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre: “They [immigration] did it on a weekend and they didn’t have request forms signed so we didn’t have time to get to them.”

Pham is in intermittent contact with one of the brothers back in Vietnam, who he says is being harassed and “consistently asked to go and see the police”.

And those left behind in detention – even those who’ve been “screened in” for further consideration of their asylum claim – are “scared and panicked”, Pham says.

“They think they could be next [to be deported].”

Another source reported on Thursday that the deportees had arrived at Ho Chi Minh Airport. In Yongah Hill detention centre, detainees have heard there may be weekly removals to Vietnam.

The office of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison has not replied to requests for comment from The Global Mail.

In his October 18 briefing, Morrison referred to enhanced screening of Sri Lankans who had arrived by boat as a success, saying that “Under Operation Sovereign Borders we are taking a much stronger position on these issues, we are not dealing in half measures under protest.

“I have instructed the Department to enforce the screen out procedure policy on all Sri Lankan arrivals regardless of their pathway to Australia,” Morrison said.

9 comments on this story
by Stoic

So sad to think this is the way we deal with asylum seekers. So angry that we do not consider this treatment reprehensible. So furious that there is not widespread opposition to these policies. So heartbroken that we have allowed successive governments to excise our empathy glands.

October 25, 2013 @ 1:50pm
by Disturbed

As Australia suddenly becomes more conservative and autocratic, we might all want to become refugees in a more progressive society such as NZ, the UK and Canada.

October 26, 2013 @ 1:10pm
by Andrew

The compliance of the Australian Electorate is frightening to behold. The asylum seekers have broken no law themselves, the law breakers ore potentially the smugglers. Yet we take the easy route and label all boat arrivals as 'criminals', Where is the uproar about visa overstayers (mainly white Europeans), who arrived by plane. We have no major problem as compared to Africa and Southern Europe re asylum seekers. LETS GET REAL ABOUT THIS ISSUE and learn to love with our problem and become HUMANS again in our outlook. This is only the lucky country for those who are already here!!

October 26, 2013 @ 1:44pm
by Steve Carey

Can we expect Cardinal Pell to get into Tony's ear about these Catholic escapeess from Vietnam?? No guess not, it might expose the hypocrisy of both.

October 26, 2013 @ 7:53pm
by D John

Thank you so much for reporting on this Nick. It is devastating news and must be told despite the apparent apathy of Australians around these abuses of power in our Country.
I may have visited some of these men while they were in Darwin but I don't know because it is so hard to get any information.
Members of the local community visit people in detention fairly often, we start to build a rapport but often find that people have been moved without any explanation, taken in the dark of night! Sadly your article has filled in some of the blanks for those of us who were still wondering where these men had gone.
How long before our so called Immigration and Border Protection personnel start actively interfering in the lives of Citizens of our country? It may sound far fetched but who would ever have thought our leaders would be bragging about sending refugees back into the hands of their oppressors?

October 27, 2013 @ 12:07am
by FateInWind

So sorry for all humanity, actually. 'What man has made of man'.

October 27, 2013 @ 3:11pm
Show previous 6 comments
by Sarah

Interesting read but I found it very one sided. Australia is signatory to the international protection obligations, so Australia is required to oblige by these obligations. These people were found not to have claims for protection and as such should be sent home.

A lot of people come to Australia as economic refugees and claim they are persecuted just so they can remain in Australia. The journalist is not aware of all the individual claims of these clients so how can he infer that the claims of persecution were substantial? An example of this is the Iranians who would rather go back to Iran than stay on Manus, originally claiming persecution however changed their minds when they realised they would not economically be advantaged staying on Manus.

I have travelled the world and seen a lot of poverty; if we accepted all economic asylum seekers than most countries citizens would be eligible to come to Australia. Australians already complain that there are not enough teachers, doctors, nurses, funding for hospitals/school etc and illegal asylum seekers put a further burden on our social systems. It costs a huge amount (billions) of public funds to process and manage boat people, funds which could be directed into the Australian public or to legitimate migration pathways. I support the current Governments stance; by sending people home (those found not to be refugees) it sends a message that we don’t tolerate human trafficking and encourages people to take legitimate pathways.

October 28, 2013 @ 8:10pm
by Mark

@Sarah, Your arguments are myths. There are a number of resources available online to correct your understanding. Firstly, asylum seeking is a legitimate pathway in Australia, it is not illegal. Secondly, the vast majority of asylum seekers are found to have legitimate claims as refugees. Thirdly, Australia accepts a miniscule number of refugees by world standards. Our schools and hospitals are not overflowing with refugees. There is so much nonsense flying around. People who carry on about boat people being such a big deal are either ignorant victims of the tabloid media, xenophobic, racist, selfish, or a combination of these.

October 29, 2013 @ 7:29pm
by D John

Here's a scary piece of information. Just a few weeks after Australian Immigration officials allowed Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security agents access to people in their protection and care, it has now been announced that the NT Government has negotiated a very lucrative arrangement to export live cattle to Vietnam... Feel free to join the dots!

October 29, 2013 @ 10:57pm
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