Alarm over foreign officials in WA detention centre

Alarm over foreign officials in WA detention centre

Advocates have expressed concerns over "interviews" conducted by Vietnamese officials with immigration detainees in WA. 

An interview or an interrogation?

An immigration official or the secret police?

Those are the kinds of questions at play as a tense drama - and trauma - unfolds at a detention centre north-east of Perth.

One man tried to hang himself.

Five others made a break for freedom, spending days on the run in unfamiliar bush until they were recaptured, hungry and lost.

Hundreds more staged a 24 hour hunger strike.

Each case involved Vietnamese asylum seekers at the Yongah Hill immigration detention centre outside Perth.

And each came after Vietnamese authorities were allowed to enter the centre to interview as many as a hundred or more of the detainees.

Or, as the president of the association the Vietnamese Community in Western Australia, Dr Anh Nguyen, puts it, allowed to interrogate them.

"Many have tried to escape because they've been interviewed -- I use the word 'interrogated,' not just interviewed -- by the Vietnamese secret police from the A18 Section, sent to this area. And they escaped because they saw no future for themselves. And, recently, they have reported that their families in Vietnam have been harassed, beaten up ... arrested. And one of the fathers of a detainee was taken away from the family for almost a month now."

The Department of Immigration describes the Vietnamese officials who visited the centre as immigration officials.

Section A18 is, officially, the Office of Controlling Exit and Entry.

However, it operates within the Ministry of Public Security, and the Vietnamese community widely regards it as the security police, or secret police.

Dr Nguyen, who has visited the detainees inside the Yongah Hill facility at the town of Northam, says the interviews have left a mood of deep despair and confusion.

Carina Hoang, who fled Vietnam by boat in the 1970s with her family and, today, is a refugee advocate and published Australian author, has visited, too.

"They all were very stressed. They were concerned about their future. A lot of it is the unknown. They didn't know what's going to happen to them, if they're going to be returned to Vietnam, if so, when and how. And, also, their other concern is what happens to their families in Vietnam now the policemen have their files and their personal data."

The parent organisation, the Vietnamese Community in Australia, wrote to outgoing Immigration Minister Tony Burke, asking why the police from Vietnam were given access.

Mr Burke responded in a letter to association president Tri Vo that Vietnamese officials only had access to those whose applications for asylum had been rejected.

The Minister wrote that the interviews were necessary because Australia cannot return people to their home country without the cooperation of that country's government.

"The purpose of the visit was to assist the Department of Immigration and Citizenship with identity/nationality verification of a number of Vietnamese clients who had no immigration matters ongoing. It is not unusual for the department to engage with foreign government officials where it is necessary to progress and resolve the status of clients in these circumstances."

The Department of Immigration says none of the people interviewed had ongoing immigration matters in Australia, or, in other words, they no longer had a chance at asylum.

A spokesman says the interviews were done to ascertain the nationality of people who claimed to be Vietnamese but lacked the necessary documentary evidence.

He says a Vietnamese-speaking Australian Immigration official was present at all times.

But the Refugee Action Coalition's Ian Rintoul disputes Tony Burke's explanation that it was not unusual to involve the Vietnamese officials.

"The fact is that it is not routine practice, it is not normal practice. The only other incident I know of is Chinese officials who were allowed into Villawood (detention centre) in 2005, and the result of that was that people made further applications, were granted permanent visas and, in many cases, got compensation for being exposed to danger by the presence of those Chinese officials. And I simply know of no other incidents. I mean, the Sri Lankan officials don't go in to make identifications ... Indian officials ... Bangladesh officials ... It is simply not normal practice, in spite of what the Immigration Department has said."

Chinese officials commenced those interviews at Sydney's Villawood detention centre without Immigration officials present.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found the detainees' rights were breached, and those detainees reportedly received four to nine thousand dollars each.

Ian Rintoul says he sees a common motive between the two matters.

"The common connection that seems to me to be there between the Chinese and the Vietnamese, where they were actually brought into the detention centre, is actually the issue of the cooperation of the government. It looks to me like the Immigration Department was concerned to have the Vietnamese government onside, in terms of forced removals, and one of the things has been allowing the Vietnamese officials actually into the detention centres to gather the kind of information that the Vietnamese government wanted. You know, I think it's got nothing to do with the identity and specific arrangements. It's got everything to do with the need to get the cooperation from the Vietnamese government for forced returns."

The issue of Vietnamese seeking asylum in Australia has fallen out of the headlines since the years after the Vietnam War, when Carina Hoang's family fled.

But Ms Hoang says more than half of the 600 detainees currently at the Yongah Hill detention centre are Vietnamese asylum seekers.

Most of them are believed to be Catholics from around Vinh city in northern Vietnam, where dozens were injured recently in protests over the alleged persecution of Catholics.

Tony Burke acknowledged in his letter to Tri Vo that Vietnamese officials have met with detainees at Yongah Hill and in centres in Darwin and Sydney.

Mr Vo, based in Sydney and emphasising he has not seen matters for himself, says he feels some reassurance in what Mr Burke wrote.

"At least I feel reassurred by him that, as he's written, at no time were Vietnamese officials given access to asylum seekers from Vietnam while it was being determined whether or not they are refugees. Well, at least I have that in writing, and I feel partly reassured that the policy of the Australian government is not to give access to Vietnamese officials to asylum seekers from Vietnam while their application is being determined."

But Carina Hoang, who has met the detainees, is not so convinced.

She says there is so much confusion among the Vietnamese at Yongah Hill that many thought they had passed the first round of their application and were awaiting a next round.

She says those in the Vietnamese and refugee-advocate communities now trying to help do not enough information to know if the stated government policy was followed.

The Immigration spokesman says he is unable to say what other countries' officials have had similar access, and Ms Hoang's research has led her only to the Chinese precedent.

And that precedent, she suggests, hardly encourages using similar practices.

"The practice was used, but it was not well-received. And, in the end, it didn't even have good outcomes. So, why would they use it again?"

Anh Nguyen, who has listened to the detainees' fears and worries, goes one step further.

He suggests the interviews, or interrogations, of the Vietnamese detainees could turn them into viable refugees if they were not before.

"Once they have been screened out like this, and with the presence of the Vietnamese officials, and their families back in Vietnam have now been under close watch like this and harassment like this, they should be reconsidered as political asylum seekers -- I mean, qualify for that kind of thing. And I hope that the government is resolving this issue in a more humanitarian and practical way."

Dr Nguyen says detainees told him that, at one point, some were led into a room for what they thought were health checks, only to be pressured to sign repatriation papers.

He says, in his mind, what has been done is simply wrong.

"We as a country, democratic and civilised like Australia, cannot allow an official from a totalitarian regime like Vietnam to come here and interview those who escaped from their own brutal regime. This is ethically and morally ... not right."




Source SBS Radio

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