Australia

'Highly embarrassing': UN group slams Australia for detaining Vietnamese woman and her baby

Huyen Thu Thi Tran (right) kisses Isabella Lee Pin Loong. Source: Human Rights For All

The United Nations has called the world's attention to a mother and baby in a Melbourne immigration centre.

A United Nations working group has slammed the Australian government for the ongoing detention of a Vietnamese asylum seeker and her 15-month-old baby in a Melbourne immigration facility.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention heavily criticised the government's treatment of Huyen Thu Thi Tran and daughter Isabella Lee Pin Loong, calling for their immediate release and proper compensation.

The group, which usually looks into countries with far more questionable human rights records than Australia, compiled a 17-page "opinion" on the pair. It is yet to be publicly released but has been seen by SBS News.

Ms Tran, a Catholic, fled religious persecution from rural Vietnam and landed on Christmas Island by boat in 2011. On arrival, she was put in detention where she stayed for more than a year. 

In 2012, Ms Tran then lived in Australia under a "community detention" arrangement, which she violated to "avoid deportation".

Before authorities relocated her in 2017, she married and fell pregnant. She was at that point taken to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre. Isabella was born a few months later and remains stateless.

"[So] Isabella has only ever known detention," Ms Tran's lawyer and director of Human Rights for All, Alison Battisson told SBS News.

Isabella has only ever known detention

Alison Battisson, lawyer

"For new mothers and babies, detention can never be appropriate. For early childhood development, it's never appropriate ... Isabella cannot possibly have a normal childhood."

Giving one example, Ms Battisson said "she may reach [out for help] to a guard, but the guard has been told to ignore her and turn away. That creates all sorts of psychological issues".

Ms Tran opted to let Isabella stay with her under "guest" status, but the UN working group was critical of this process.

"The requirement for Ms Tran to sign the request to allow her child to remain with her as a 'guest' in the detention facility is nothing more than an attempt on behalf of the authorities to circumvent the prohibition of detention of children in the context of migration," the UN report said.

"The working group cannot accept this as legitimate."

Ms Battisson, who took Ms Tran's case to the UN, agreed.

"[The government] is surreptitiously detaining children without the ability of the Australian public to know this," she said.

The Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre.
The Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre.
SBS

The UN working group took aim at Australia for repeatedly detaining Ms Tran, when detaining immigrants should only be "a measure of last resort".

It concluded that repeatedly detaining an asylum seeker and her newborn baby was arbitrary and contravened the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It called for Australia to release them immediately "and accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations".

Australia 'takes its international obligations seriously'

In its submission to the working group, the Australian government said Ms Tran came to Australia as an "illegal maritime arrival" and was "found not to be owed protection". She was placed in the Melbourne facility in 2017 "due to her history of absconding and remaining unlawfully [in Australia]".

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told SBS News the government was aware that the report had been completed and was now reviewing it.

"The Australian government takes its international obligations seriously," the spokesperson said.

"Australia has a long history of engaging cooperatively with the United Nations and its mandate holders, and welcomes open and constructive engagement with the human rights system."

The Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre.
The Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre.
ABC News

The spokesperson would not provide information about the specific care provided to Isabella or her "guest" status.

"The department upholds Australia's international human rights obligations by embedding the consideration of the best interests of children into internal procedures and policies."

Ms Battisson said "in general, Australia has a fantastic human rights record that we should be very proud of", but this case and our broader record on asylum seekers were "highly embarrassing".

She said being examined by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention meant Australia was in the same company as "such countries as Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships and despot countries".

"At some point, the ruse around Australia's good human rights record will be broken and it has to be acknowledged what we're doing."

"Manus and Nauru rightly should be focused on but there are awful things happening in detention centres in Australia."

She said Australians needed to realise that "there are lovely, cute, innocent babies" being detained onshore.

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