My latest article on the Vietnamese families recognised as refugees in Jakarta published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age today

Turned back by Australia, Vietnamese recognised as refugees in Indonesia

  • Shira Sebban

Ever since they were forcibly returned by Australia to Vietnam two years ago, mother-of-four Tran Thi Thanh Loan and mother-of-three Tran Thi Lua have lived in constant fear of a harsh jail sentence.

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.

 The families were among 92 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in two separate incidents by the Australian navy in 2015.

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.

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.

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Fate of Vietnamese asylum seeker children hangs in the balance

EXCLUSIVE: Fate of Vietnamese asylum seeker children hangs in the balance
Shira Sebban 16 March 2017, 3:30pm

Vietnamese asylum seeker children in Indonesia2

‘What will happen to the 12 children caught up in this saga? At worst, they will be returned to Vietnam, where their mothers risk longer prison sentences as repeat offenders under the Vietnamese penal code.’ (Image supplied)

I HAD BEGGED THEM never to try to reach Australia by boat from Vietnam again. Through an interpreter, I had warned them about our country’s tough border protection policies and we had made it clear that any money raised was to be used to feed, clothe and educate their children in Vietnam.

They had agreed, sending messages of gratitude, or photos of their children with their new school supplies, each time we transferred a few hundred dollars from the online crowd funds launched last year.

So when they embarked on their second attempt to seek asylum in Australia, they did not tell us.

All we knew was that they had disappeared from Facebook and were no longer answering their phones. Concerned, we asked their lawyer, Don An Vo, to find out what happened.

Imagine our shock to read his announcement that three failed asylum seeker families, including 12 children, had fled Vietnam again and were heading for Australia.

As it turns out, they never made it here. Ten days into their journey, the engine failed, their boat hitting rocks and beginning to sink. Rescued off the Java coast by Indonesian authorities, they have since been interviewed by the UNHCR and are applying for refugee status in Indonesia.

Tran Thi Thanh Loan and her four children made headlines last year when she lost her appeal against a three-year jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in the family-owned fishing boat in March 2015. Her children, aged 4-16, were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage, their father, Ho Trung Loi, having already received a two-year sentence. He is not due for release until April 2017, although that now appears out of the question.

The Vietnamese authorities have said “he will never be released unless we return,” Loan said from the Indonesian motel where she and her children are staying.
Loan continued:

“At first they told him we died at sea because the boat sank. He nearly went crazy with grief. Then they put him in solitary confinement, refusing to let my sister visit or send him food or medicine. She had to bribe them to see him and only managed to say we are safe before the police took him away. They told the family he will be punished for ‘my mistake’ and so we believe he may be beaten.”
Loi has since been moved to a harsher prison in the Vietnamese jungle, where he is forced to do hard labour and is not given enough to eat, Loan alleged.

She accused the Vietnamese police of “terrorising” her extended family, preventing them from operating their fruit stall:

“I’m worried the police will destroy their only source of income as pay-back and to ensure they have no money to help me and provide for my husband.”
Pressure had been mounting on Loan in the weeks leading up to her decision to flee. Also among the group of 18 asylum seekers is mother-of-three, Tran Thi Lua, who last year too lost her appeal against a 30-month jail sentence for helping organise another “illegal” departure to Australia in July 2015.

While the two women had been granted a temporary reprieve, they were both facing imminent, lengthy sentences.

“They asked what would happen if they went back to Australia,” Doan Viet Trung, president of Vietnamese human rights organisation, VOICE Australia, said.

children in Indonesia1

The children in Indonesia (Image supplied)

He added:

“I told them they’d be sent back or detained indefinitely. Lately they expressed fears that when in jail they’ll be beaten badly for speaking out, officials have threatened them so. I told them they should record the threats to show their fears are grounded. Lua told me she had recorded something.”
Both women had also told their lawyer Vo they would rather commit suicide by jumping into the sea than be jailed in Vietnam. Lua had already spent ten weeks in prison in 2015, before being charged, which had traumatised her, describing being beaten and sworn at by female guards, who forced prisoners to drink, wash and cook with filthy water.

The Vietnamese court has now revoked its deferral of the two women’s jail terms, so if they are returned, they will go straight to prison.

Since mid-2016, I have been in regular contact with both women, having started online crowd funds to help their families, who were among 113 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in three incidents by the Australian Navy over the past two years. 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 three groups have since been incarcerated.

Last December, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed a formal agreement with Vietnam’s Public Security Minister Colonel General To Lam to return “Vietnamese nationals with no legal right to enter or remain in Australia”.

What will happen to the 12 children caught up in this saga? At worst, they will be returned to Vietnam, where their mothers risk longer prison sentences as repeat offenders under the Vietnamese penal code. At best, they could be detained in legal limbo in Indonesia, unable to work or study.

An apparently hopeless choice made by increasingly desperate parents in the face of Australian intransigence, with fewer options now available to asylum seekers in what certainly seems to be a harsher world.

https://independentaustralia.net/australia/australia-display/exclusive-fate-of-vietnamese-asylum-seeker-children-hangs-in-the-balance,10117

You can read more by Shira Sebban at shirasebban.wordpress.com.

Saving The World, One Life At A Time

Vietnamese refugees flee after the fall of Saigon in 1975. This image was taken from the ship USS Midway, and is part of the Mike Baxter collection.

Saving The World, One Life At A Time
By Shira Sebban

New Matilda, October 15, 2016 Asylum Seekers

https://newmatilda.com/2016/10/15/saving-the-world-one-life-at-a-time/

Social media may have changed the world, but it’s also made campaigning to make at least one life better a genuine reality, writes Shira Sebban.

I recently started an online crowd fund to help the families of two Vietnamese citizens, sentenced to jail for trying to seek asylum in Australia. Between them, they have five children aged 4-14, none of whom will be able to attend school without the help of Australian donors.

Mother of three, Tran Thi Lua, has lost her appeal against a 30-month jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in a fishing boat last year.

Lua’s case has been complicated by the subsequent arrest of her husband, Nguyen Long, by Indonesian authorities, who accuse him of fishing in their waters. He has been detained in Indonesia, his boat and gear confiscated.

Meanwhile, the father of the other two children, Nguyen Minh Quyet, who skippered the boat on its ill-fated Australian journey in July 2015, has lost the use of both his legs while detained in jail in Vietnam.

“The prison officers refused to allow him medical treatment,” his wife, Pham Thi Thu Thanh, said. “When I protested and demanded he be taken to hospital, they threatened to paralyse his arms if I would not shut up.”

While Quyet has also lost his appeal, he has been allowed to remain at home, cared for by his wife, until he is well enough to return to jail to complete his two-year sentence.

As an Australian, I feel morally responsible for the families of these asylum seekers, who were abandoned to such a harsh fate by our government. They were among the 92 Vietnamese 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. Undaunted, Australian authorities have continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea under the government’s Turn Back the Boats policy.

In the face of continued government intractability, it is easy to feel overwhelmed: what can one person do to help? For help I must.

True, in the current political climate, I often feel as if I am in the minority, with most Australians seeming to agree with our government’s stance, adamant that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come”. Whatever happened to befriending the stranger?

Thanks to the generosity of some fellow Australians from various cultural backgrounds and walks of life, I was recently able to send $1,500 to each family to help pay for school fees and other expenses, only to discover that the donation had attracted the attention of the Vietnamese police.

mrs-lua-and-familyMrs Lua and her family, pictured in Vietnam recently.

“They keep coming to my house to ask me about the money,” Lua said. “They ask where it comes from, what it’s for, who sent it. I told the police that it’s from foreigners who feel sorry for my situation and decided to help me so my children can go to school.”

To make matters worse, she maintains that the police have now prevented her from going to the beach to dig for clams to sell at the market, which has been her only source of income since her husband was detained in Indonesia. “I asked them why people from overseas would help me, while the Vietnamese government does nothing to help and even causes more problems…. It makes me very upset that foreigners care so much, yet the government sees them as enemies.”

Lua is only too aware how her jail sentence will impact on her children’s future, depriving them of education and work opportunities. “In Vietnam if one person commits what is considered to be a crime, the whole family pays.”

Both Lua and Thanh are now too scared to talk to me, the police having come to their homes to threaten that if they continue to speak to people overseas who will say “bad things” about the government online, then both of them will be taken to jail immediately.

The police intervention, however, has made me only more determined to help these families. It all started two months ago, when I first decided to take action, running an online fundraising campaign in support of the family of another Vietnamese failed asylum seeker. More than a hundred fellow Australians contributed to raise over $10,000 to prevent four children from having to leave school and live in an orphanage.

The children, aged 4-16, had seemingly been condemned to a dismal future after their mother, Tran Thi Thanh Loan, lost her appeal for leniency on the basis of being their sole carer.

She was set to begin a three-year jail sentence following the attempt to seek asylum in Australia. Their father, Ho Trung Loi, was already serving a two-year sentence in a jail seven hours’ drive from the family’s home and is not due for release until mid-2017. Maintaining that no-one in her family could afford to look after the children, Loan was told they should leave school and go to an orphanage.

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

According to Loan, the family originally left Vietnam 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 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.

Initially too embarrassed to accept help, Loan calculated her children’s living and education expenses to be around AUD$425 per month, or about $5,000 for the year. Within a few weeks we had raised more than double than amount, thereby ensuring not only that Loan’s children are well provided for, but also that their parents can get back on their feet once they are released from jail.

The good news is that following an international public backlash, Loan has been granted a temporary reprieve, her sentence delayed for one year until her husband’s release. Her lawyer has since put me in touch with the families of other failed asylum seekers.

I had never believed before that one person could really make a difference. But social media has changed that, as has the possibility of making personal contact with asylum seekers, whether online or face-to-face.

A drop in the ocean? Perhaps, but we cannot give up. For as the ancients taught, “whoever saves a life is considered as if they saved an entire world”.