It was a stormy June night in 2016 when Van Huynh loaded a fishing skiff with rice, spices, meat, and fish—provisions that were supposed to be enough to last for a month at sea. Thunderstorms and large waves worried Huynh but her husband, Kiet Nguyen, was undaunted as he prepared the boat that would take them, their two children, and 13 other asylum seekers out into the vast ocean with little more to guide them than the slim hope they would make it to the shores of Australia and a better, freer life.
“We wanted to leave Vietnam because our country has no human rights,” Huynh said. “We have no freedom here.”
The trip did not go as planned. The provisions ran out and they were forced to forage for food on islands along the way. The boat also started taking on water. On the 21st day they were stopped by Australian authorities and detained. Huynh feared that she would be returned to Vietnam and sent to jail. However, Australian officials assured her they would be fine; agreements were in place with Vietnam to ensure they would not be arrested.
“The Vietnamese government did not keep their promise to Australia,” Huynh said. “They detained and interrogated us and sentenced my husband to three years in prison.”
Huynh’s sentence was suspended, she says, because of their two children.
It has become a familiar refrain: Australia intercepts asylum seekers at sea, asks a few questions on their claim, then sends them packing with a pledge that they won’t be punished. But reports show that many are, indeed, arrested and prosecuted upon their return.
“Australia claimed that it sought guarantees from Vietnam that no one returned would be prosecuted for actions to depart the country, but then said nothing publicly when Vietnam went back on that promise,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “In fact, we suspect that Australia is giving a wink and nod for Vietnam to do whatever it can to stop boat departures but, again, any such discussions are hidden by a wall of secrecy in both Canberra and Hanoi.”
In the most recent case, a boat with 17 Vietnamese asylum seekers ran aground near the mouth of the Daintree river in August and the passengers fled into the crocodile-infested mangrove to escape. After being picked up by authorities in Queensland, they were transferred to the Christmas Island detention center before being sent back to Vietnam in September.
No one has heard from them since and attempts to track them down have proven fruitless. Vietnamese journalists and government officials have refused to answer even basic questions about their fate. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Vietnamese embassy in Australia, and the Australian Office of Home Affairs have all declined to respond to repeated requests for information. Home Affairs even declined to answer whether they were attempting to track them at all.
In fact, monitoring the fate of returnees seems to be outside of the purview of anyone in the international community.
When contacted, United Nations agencies responded that they could not help. The International Organization for Migration office in Hanoi responded they were “not in a position to assist.” This is despite, in 2016, being funded by the Australian government to run a public information campaign in Vietnam to curb irregular migration to Australia.
Similarly, a spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said they just didn’t know, noting Australia was doing little to cooperate with the office.
“Despite repeated requests that on-water assessments be shared with UNHCR in its supervisory capacity under the 1951 Refugee Convention, these documents have not been made available as a matter of course,” Caroline Gluck, UNHCR Senior Regional Public Information Officer, said via email.
In 2016, the Office of Home Affairs signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Vietnam, saying that Australia would return Vietnamese nationals and Vietnam would take them back. They also claimed that Vietnam agreed that they would not face arrest upon their return. But the agreement has repeatedly been broken.
Human rights advocates argue that, without a system in place for monitoring what happens to asylum seekers once they are returned, the Vietnamese government’s assurances are worth little. Last year, in response to a question by Australia Senator Nick McKim, immigration minister Michael Pezzullo admitted that no such system exists.
“As far as we know there has been no monitoring of anyone that Australia has returned to their country of origin,” Senator McKim, a Green Party member, said. “The Australian government’s record of returning people to face persecution in their home countries is refoulment, pure and simple. It’s a flagrant abuse of human rights, and we know that people have been arrested and punished in their home countries after being forced or induced to return.”
As of yet, the Ministry of Home Affairs has not provided a response.
When reports have surfaced that returnees were arrested, Canberra and Hanoi have placed the blame on human traffickers. In a statement released after the latest asylum attempt in September, Home Secretary Peter Dutton said, “The arrival of a people smuggling boat from Vietnam in late August is a reminder that the threat of people smuggling hasn’t gone away.”
However, human rights lawyers and advocates point out that the very act of leaving Vietnam “without permission” is illegal. The Vietnamese Criminal Code openly provides for penalties of up to five years in prison for anyone who “organizes illegal emigration,” effectively putting many of the asylum seekers in danger of imprisonment once they return.
Advocates are increasingly concerned for the welfare of the 17 asylum seekers returned in September and believe that the secrecy is not a bug but a feature.
“It’s not just the organizers who are facing prosecution, the reality is they all are,” says Elaine Pearson, Australia Director at Human Rights Watch, noting that outlawing emigration violates international law. However, “It’s in both Vietnam and Australia’s interest to flout international law” in this case.
Human rights lawyer Hoi Trinh calls the “human trafficking” argument specious.
“When people talk about people smugglers, it paints this picture of people who do it for money,” says Trinh who works with Vietnam VOICE, an organization that works on behalf of Vietnamese refugees around the world. “But really these so-called smugglers are usually people living in the same village, friends and supporters who organize these trips because, if you don’t have that support, how can you get out of Vietnam? If you don’t have money, how can you get a boat?”
Trinh argues that, while human trafficking exists, those trying to get to Australia are not human traffickers. He also disputes Dutton’s assertion that those making the trip are “economic refugees” (or “Armani refugees” as the Home Minister has derisively called them).
“There’s no such thing as an economic refugee,” Trinh says. “You’re either a refugee or you are not. All asylum seekers have the right to apply for asylum and if they don’t get status, they are not refugees. But none of them are even getting a chance to apply and be heard. Legally, a refugee is defined as someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution. How can you find out if they have a well-founded fear until you hear them and adjudicate their case?”
Hyunh believes that the 17 recent returnees share the same fate as the many others who attempted to seek asylum before, including her family.
“The Vietnamese government has labeled us unpatriotic,” she says. “We do not have human rights and our voices are not respected.”
About the authors:
Carmen Munir Sluchansky is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Washington, DC whose work has appeared in a variety of outlets including National Geographic, NBC News, PBS, ABC News, the BBC, Asia! Magazine, The China Post and the Chicago Tribune. He previously hosted the daily international radio news show Due Diligence during which he covered national politics including major policy debates, the presidential races, and Supreme Court and appellate cases. Prior to that, he primarily reported from abroad including China, Japan, the Middle East, Haiti, Central America and Southeast Asia primarily focusing on development and human rights issues. He has also reported from the United Nations and World Trade Organization and his acclaimed documentary work on Haiti has reached millions of viewers internationally. He holds degrees from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Georgetown University Law.
Ryan Flynn is a freelance writer and editor working on issues related to governance, social justice, public finance, and immigration. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Ryan has lived and worked in China, Cambodia, and the UK. He is now based in Washington, DC.