Shira is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French and worked in publishing. She has served on the Board of her children’s school for the past 12 years, including three terms as vice-president. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Turned back by Australia, Vietnamese recognised as refugees in Indonesia
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.
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.
An asylum seeker seriously assaulted in detention speaks out, writes Shira Sebban.
AN ASYLUM SEEKER seriously assaulted recently while in detention in Villawood has decided to speak out “even if they kill me” because “too many asylum seekers are being bashed by 501s”.
An influx into detention centres around Australia of 501 Visa holders – non-citizens, many with substantial criminal records, awaiting deportation on character grounds – over the past few years is known to have exacerbated tensions with asylum seekers, leading to a steep increase in violence.
Among them is Afghani Hazara asylum seeker, Sayed Akbar Jaffarie, who alleges that he was assaulted on the evening of 12 March 2017 by members of the Hells Angels bikie gang, at least one of whom was armed with a knife. Detained in Villawood since 2013, Mr Jaffarie had recently been moved, due to construction work, to the high security Blaxland compound, where the alleged assault took place. He has since been relocated to another compound, but only after a second altercation with gang members, this time involving a friend who was visiting him. Meanwhile, a fellow asylum seeker, who was a witness to the original assault, remains in the high security compound, with Mr Jaffarie concerned for his safety.
Forced down from his top bunk while trying to sleep, Mr Jaffarie said the bikies
“... put their feet on my left hand, fracturing my ring finger. I was shouting for an officer, but no one came. They started smashing my thigh and hit me in the stomach. They told me I had to give them $200 a week and that I had to give up my points and buy them whatever they wanted.”
Detainees earn points through the “individual allowance program”, supplemented by participating in authorised activities, allowing them to buy personal and recreational items, including newspapers and snacks, from outlets within the facility.
Serco officers, responsible for the management of Australian immigration detention centres, subsequently interviewed Mr Jaffarie, who identified the alleged perpetrators. After making a police statement, he was taken to hospital overnight. Serco ‘provides tailored services to detainees that support their wellbeing and personal security’, according to DIBP’s latest annual report (2015-16).
‘... efforts ensured that more than 100 non-citizen motorcycle gang members, associates or organised crime identities had their visas cancelled or refused on character grounds or under the Migration Act 1958.'
Section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act allows for the deportation of non-citizens who fail the “character test”, the threshold for which includes any prison sentence longer than 12 months. Whereas in June 2015, 23 per cent of those in immigration detention had their visa cancelled on character grounds, the number had increased to 31 percent by June 2016. In contrast, the percentage of "illegal maritime arrivals" had decreased over the same period, from 61 per cent in June 2015 to 32 per cent a year later.
“Repeated calls for a change in these arrangements have fallen on deaf ears. The underlying trauma of sustained and punitive detention should not be exacerbated by having to live in constant fear,” he continued.
Mr Jaffarie has been in Villawood since 19 June 2013, when his Spousal Visa was cancelled, based on an allegation that he was involved in people smuggling. He has not been charged, let alone convicted, of that offence, but is currently fighting attempts to deport him to Afghanistan, which he left with his family as a young child, escaping to Quetta, Pakistan. He came to Australia by plane after his marriage to an Australian in 2006, but eventually offered his wife release from the marriage due to his uncertain future.
A group of Vietnamese asylum seekers, including 12 children, have tried to reach Australia by boat for the second time, writes Shira Sebban.
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.
"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.
The children in Indonesia (Image supplied)
"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 fundsto 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 assurancefrom its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the three groups have since been incarcerated.
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.