They did not know whether Indonesia – where they applied for recognition as refugees earlier this year – would follow Australia’s example and return them too.
Now, however, the two mothers can breathe a little easier: officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have visited the group of 18 Vietnamese asylum seekers, including 12 children, currently in detention in Jakarta to tell them they have been granted refugee status.
Loan and Lua had been facing lengthy prison terms in Vietnam for helping to organise “illegal” departures to Australia on family-owned fishing boats in 2015.
At the end of January 2017, they fled Vietnam for Australia again, only to be rescued 10 days later from their sinking boat off the Java coast by Indonesian authorities.
Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the two groups were subsequently incarcerated, including Lua, who has complained of being severely mistreated in prison.
Both she and Loan were facing up to 15 years’ jail as repeat offenders under the recently amended Vietnamese penal code. The women maintain police had threatened to beat them in jail for having spoken out to foreigners in the past. They had also told their lawyer, Don An Voh, they would rather commit suicide by jumping into the sea than be jailed in Vietnam.
Retired US ambassador Grover Joseph Rees visits the Vietnamese families in detention. Photo: Shira Sebban
According to Loan, her family had originally left in 2015 because the state had seized their land, they had lost their livelihood due to Chinese incursions into fishing grounds, and also because of institutionalised discrimination against Catholics.
Taken into Australian custody and held at sea for almost a month, they underwent “enhanced screening” by two officials. While Australian authorities claimed they were fairly assessed, Loan said a translator was not provided for the group, none of whom spoke English. They only realised they were being returned when they reached port in Vietnam.
Loan’s husband, Ho Trung Loi, was sentenced at the time to two years’ jail in Vietnam, seven hours away from the family home. He was subsequently moved to a harsher prison in the Vietnamese jungle, and told he would never be released unless his wife and children return. Frequent beatings damaged his sight in one eye; he suffered a stroke and lost considerable weight.
Last week he was released, after being forced to sign a document stating that he had not been mistreated. He is now seeking medical treatment and is under police watch for the next six months, forbidden to leave his local area without express permission.
The family’s desperate situation first came to international attention in mid-2016 when Loan lost her appeal for leniency despite being the sole carer of her four children, then aged between four and 16, who were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage. Donations from ordinary Australians subsequently ensured the children could stay at school and be cared for by relatives. Both Loan and Lua were eventually granted a temporary reprieve from jail.
Meanwhile, however, Australia has continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea. Last December, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed a formal agreement with Vietnam’s public security minister, Lieutenant-General To Lam, to return “Vietnamese nationals with no legal right to enter or remain in Australia”.
Ineligible for resettlement under current Australian immigration policy, the families in Jakarta now hope to find another country which will offer them a safe haven. “UNHCR said they would soon work with the International Organisation for Migration and the Indonesian Immigration Department to get us out of here,” Loan said.
Canada, which is prepared to take 300,000 immigrants this year, is a serious option.
“Despite their assurance that refugees would face no sanctions or retributions for leaving the country, the government of Vietnam continues to jail, beat, torture and prosecute refugees returned to them by the Australian government,” Canadian senator Thanh Hai Ngo said. “The occurrence of these violations of basic human rights and civil liberties are at the core of why many are choosing to flee and are well known by the Canadian and Australian governments.”
The first Canadian senator of Vietnamese origin, he has agreed to “discuss and bring this re-occurring issue on Vietnamese refugees to the attention of the Australian High Commission and to the appropriate authorities here in Ottawa”. He has also requested full documentation and an update on each of the refugee claimants to help bring their cases forward.
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor and a member of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney.