Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares
July 21 2015
Prime Minister Tony Abbott is refusing to say how a suspected boat of Vietnamese asylum seekers penetrated Australia’s newly strengthened border regime, as refugee advocates urge the government not to turn the arrivals away.
The vessel was allegedly sighted by the crew of a tanker about 150 kilometres from Dampier, Western Australia, early on Monday morning.
Authorities were believed to be escorting the boat out of Australian waters on Tuesday. Refugee advocates believe it contained up to 30 Vietnamese Catholics escaping persecution, including women and children.
The highly touted Australian Border Force came into effect this month. It combined the frontline operations of the customs and immigration departments, and reinforced the government’s efforts to “stop the boats”.
Mr Abbott has previously said the border force would “ensure the legitimate passage of people and goods through our borders while preventing all illegal passage”.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Mr Abbott would not say if the government was negotiating with Vietnam over the boat’s return, nor if it had questioned the border force on how the boat came so close to shore.
“Can I repeat what has been the standard rule of this government – we do not comment on operational matters on the water,” Mr Abbott said.
“We do not discuss things in ways which would give comfort to the people smugglers.”
Pressed on how the ABF allowed the boat to slip through its defences, Mr Abbott said compared with border protection by the previous Labor government, the Coalition had been “magnificently successful, we have saved the lives of hundreds of people who might otherwise have been expected to drown at sea.”
The government has adopted a hardline policy of turning or taking back asylum seeker vessels.
A “take back” of 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers occurred in April. The men, women and children were held at sea for almost a month before being returned to Vietnam on an Australian navy ship.
It involved a diplomatic exchange between the Australian and Vietnamese governments.
At a Senate estimates inquiry in May, border officials said the government was assured “there would not be any retribution for their illegal departure from Vietnam”, however they conceded the department does not track asylum seekers once they have returned.
In evidence to the inquiry, officials would not say if the group were asked if they had suffered torture or trauma before being sent back.
According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam’s human rights record is “dire in all key areas” and the communist state “suppresses virtually all forms of political dissent, using a broad array of repressive measures” including torture.
Mr Abbott on Tuesday reiterated the government’s “absolute determination to ensure that people will not come to this country illegally by boat”.
“If any, by hook or by crook, actually get here, they will never get permanent residency in this country,” he said. The government sends asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru for processing, with potential resettlement in those jurisdictions or Cambodia.
“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,” he said.
As Fairfax Media reported, serious allegations of violence and sexual abuse of asylum seekers were aired at a Senate inquiry into the Nauru detention facility on Monday.
Should the suspected asylum seekers be returned to Vietnam, refugee rights groups hold serious concerns for their welfare.
Refugee Action Coalition coordinator Ian Rintoul said the asylum seekers should be brought onshore and allowed to make protection applications, rather than returned to Vietnam.
He said of the 46 asylum seekers returned to Vietnam in April, the adults were reportedly detained and questioned. Some men were reportedly still in prison, and some children were not allowed to attend school, Mr Rintoul said, citing information provided by Vietnamese community members in Australia.
A spokesman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said those claims were false, and that Vietnamese authorities had invited the United Nations’ refugee agency to interview the 46 returned people “to satisfy themselves that they have not been subject to ill treatment”.
He said the government does not comment on “operational details where this would prejudice the outcome of current or future operations”.
Mr Rintoul said the government was being secretive “to prevent scrutiny of the abuse of asylum seekers’ human rights”.
“In this kind of turnback situation, the asylum seekers are being directly handed to those they are fleeing from. It is a complete violation of their rights and international law.”
The boat was reportedly first spotted by the crew of oil and gas contractor Modec. A spokeswoman for the firm on Tuesday would not comment, saying immigration officials had instructed that all inquiries be referred to the department.
With Leanne Nicholson
First published in the SMH, 21/0/7/2015