Operation Enhanced Screenings
By Nick OlleOctober 24, 2013
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.
“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.
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.