An image taken from ABC news footage of the suspected asylum seeker vessel off the coast of Western Australia on Monday. Photograph: ABC news
Western Australian premier says the vessel, understood to be carrying about 30 men, women and children, off the north-west coast is under surveillance
Tuesday 21 July 2015 19.37 AEST
The Australian navy has reportedly moved to intercept a small boat carrying about 30 Vietnamese asylum seekers off the north-west coast, as the government seeks Vietnamese interpreters to help talk to the passengers.
The Western Australian premier, Colin Barnett, told reporters in Perth on Tuesday that the boat remained “well offshore” and was under surveillance. He confirmed that a police search and rescue boat had been sent to check the vessel.
“The state police boat has been assisting the commonwealth – I think their role is pretty well complete now and the commonwealth naval vessels will take over,” he said, according to the ABC.
The fishing boat was spotted at first light on Monday by workers for contractors Modec, who were on a tanker servicing an oil rig about 78 nautical miles, or 150km, offshore from Dampier, which is about 1,500km north of Perth.
A spokesman from Modec told Guardian Australia that its workers had notified the authorities because the boat was inside the 500m exclusion zone around the oil rig, and that those aboard appeared to be in good health.
The prime minister, Tony Abbott, has refused to comment about the boat arrival, which is the first in more than 12 months.
“Can I repeat what has been the standard rule of this government – we do not comment on operational matters on the water,” he told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday. “We do not discuss things in ways which could give comfort to the people smugglers.”
The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has also refused to comment.
The boat is understood to be carrying about 30 asylum seekers from Vietnam, including women and children.
Trung Doan, a volunteer with refugee support group VOICE Australia, told Guardian Australia that the government had put the call out for Vietnamese interpreters to talk to the vessel’s passengers, who are believed to be from the same extended family group.
Doan said that according to sources in Vietnam who were in contact with the group before they departed for Australia on 2 July, the passengers largely belonged to a fishing family who were seeking protection from the Chinese government over a dispute about fishing areas.
“The Chinese destroyed their vessels and they had to be rescued from the waters and they found no protection from the Vietnamese authorities,” Doan said.
“The fear is mainly that when they get back they will again not be protected by the Vietnamese authorities in doing their work, which is in Vietnamese waters.”
Doan said that if the group was returned to Vietnam they would face the same treatment as a group of 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers, who were handed over to Vietnamese authorities in April after being intercepted by Australian border patrol vessels.
“There is a war in Vietnam against people leaving without permission like this,” he said. “So now they have an additional fear that they would be punished for fleeing the country.
“I do know from speaking to the people who came to Australia in February that they had trouble with law enforcement.
“Initially in the first week nothing much happened to them, but after that, when the Vietnamese authorities thought that the world had forgotten about them, then the Vietnamese police kept asking them to come back again and again and again, all of them, for interrogations. And one of them has now been jailed for several months.”
Victoria Martin-Iverson, from the Refugee Rights Action Network, said the Australian government should be open about what would happen to the passengers on the boat.
“The turning back of this boat and the boat before it is denying people their legal right to seek asylum,” she said. “The question we have all got now is, what’s going to happen with it? Has it been turned back to Vietnam, will these people be returned to Vietnam, and what will happen to them?”
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said that the passengers on the boat were seeking legal advice about any challenge that could be launched if authorities sought to return them to Vietnam.
“Discussions are happening now,” Rintoul said.
Abbott reiterated his government’s policy that people who seek to arrive in Australia by sea will not be granted asylum. The government has instituted a policy of turning back boats carrying asylum seekers, with 15 turned back to their country of origin last year. Indonesian Police have since supported claims that the Australian government has paid people smugglers to return asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers who are picked up by Australian authorities are sent to offshore processing centres in Nauru or on Manus Island, and offered resettlement either there or in Cambodia.
“If any, by hook or by crook, actually get here, they will never get permanent residency in this country,” he said.
“As long as anyone thinks that by coming here by boat, they will get the great prize of permanent residency here in Australia, the evil, dangerous, deadly trade of people smuggling will continue.”
First published on The Guardian website, 21/07/2015