My article about helping the family of failed Vietnamese asylum seekers published in the Guardian

Australian immigration and asylum Opinion
We’re a disparate group of Australians doing the work our government won’t
Shira Sebban

When I heard that a woman who attempted to seek asylum in Australia but had her boat returned to Vietnam was about to be sent to jail, leaving her kids with no parent and facing life in an orphanage, I started a crowd fund

Mrs Loan and her youngest daughter selling fruit in the market
‘Tran Thi Thanh Loan earns a few dollars a day by buying fruit from local orchards, which she sells in front of her parents’ home.’ Photograph: Supplied by Shira Sebban

Wednesday 24 August 2016 15.27 AEST Last modified on Friday 26 August 2016 09.21 AEST
The four children of a Vietnamese woman, who will be sent to jail for trying to seek asylum in Australia, were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage. But the Australian people have done something the Australian government couldn’t – or wouldn’t – and have raised enough money to ensure the children can stay at school and be cared for by relatives.

The mother of the children, failed asylum-seeker Tran Thi Thanh Loan, is set to begin a three-year jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in the family-owned fishing boat last year. Their father, Ho Trung Loi, is already serving a two-year sentence following the attempt to seek asylum in Australia – in a jail seven hours’ drive from the family’s home – and is not due for release until mid-2017.

Loan recently lost her appeal for leniency on the basis of being the sole carer of her four children, aged from 4 to 16. Maintaining that no one in her family could afford to look after them, she was told they should leave school and go to an orphanage.

“They have been crying a lot and clinging to me,” she told the Australian. “My youngest child keeps saying ‘Mummy, don’t go’. My older children are worried. They feel the pressure and are scared of having neither parent around. They have asked if they can be sent to prison with me.”

I could not bear the thought of this family suffering even more and did not want to see them further torn apart. So I decided to try and contact the family’s lawyer, Don An Vo, in Vietnam to ask him how much it would cost each month in order for the extended family to care for the children until their father’s release from jail next year.

The family was among the 92 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in two separate incidents by the Australian navy last year. 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 have since been incarcerated.

Mrs Loan's children with their new school purchases

The children of Tran Thi Thanh Loan, pictured with their new school purchases made from funds provided by a crowd fund in Australia. Photograph: Tran Thi Thanh Loan
According to Loan, the family originally left 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. While Australian authorities claim they were fairly assessed, she said that 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.

Via Facebook and the help of a friend of the family’s lawyer, I was able to get in touch with Vo and Loan. Initially, Loan was too embarrassed to accept any help, but finally convinced by her lawyer, she calculated that her children’s living and education expenses amount to 7,000,000 Vietnamese dong per month, which is roughly equivalent to AUD$425, or about $5,000 for the year. But there was another complication – she did not have a bank account and would need to open one before I could send the first monthly payment.

There have been several reports in the media about these failed asylum seekers being sent to prison despite assurances to Australian officials they would not be punished. So far, the Australian government seems not to have done anything about this injustice. Indeed, Australian authorities have continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea. That’s why I decided I had to step in.

I had never believed before that one person could really make a difference. But social media has changed that. Earlier this month, I launched an online fundraising campaign for Loan’s children, with the target amount of $10,000 in order to ensure not only that they are well provided for but also that their parents are able to get back on their feet once they are released from jail. We are well on the way to achieving our goal. We are a disparate group from various cultural backgrounds and walks of life doing the work that our government won’t.

Loan has told me that she and her children are currently living with her parents after her house was destroyed and land confiscated by the Vietnamese government. She earns a few dollars a day by buying fruit from local orchards, which she sells in front of her parents’ home until lunchtime. She moves to another site in the afternoon, for which she pays rent, in order to sell the rest at a lower price because it is no longer as fresh. The good news is she has just been granted a temporary reprieve, her sentence delayed for one year until her husband is released from jail.

“Your help and kindness has made me feel much more confident and less stressed now,” Loan wrote recently on Facebook. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping my family.”

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