Vietnamese asylum seeker Tran Thi Lua stands together with her three children.
PHOTO: Vietnamese asylum seeker Tran Thi Lua and her three children. (Supplied: Shira Sebban)
By South-East Asia correspondent Liam Cochrane
Updated 23 Feb 2017, 10:51pm
STORY: Vietnam boat people facing jail after being turned away from Australia
A Vietnamese asylum seeker has said she faced three months of detention and beatings after being returned by Australian immigration officials.
Tran Thi Lua fled Vietnam for a second time after being returned by Australian officials
Australia says people aren’t returned to persecution
Tran and family now stranded in Indonesia with two other Vietnamese families
Tran Thi Lua fled a second time, trying to reach Australia this month, but her boat broke down off the Indonesian coast.
Now she is stranded in Indonesia with her three children and two other Vietnamese families, hoping for an interview with the United Nations refugee agency this week.
The other two mothers on the recent boat trip were also returned by Australia in 2015 and faced punishment from the communist Vietnamese Government.
“We would rather receive a bullet to the head than go back to Vietnam,” Mrs Tran said.
She fled Vietnam in July 2015 after a land dispute escalated to arrests and beatings by officials.
Her boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy, kept at sea while a fast-tracked asylum assessment was conducted and then all 46 people on board were handed over to Vietnam.
A separate boatload of 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers was stopped in April 2015, with all claims rejected.
“We assure ourselves of the fact that people aren’t returning to persecution or to a difficult situation,” then-Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said at the time.
“We have worked with the Vietnamese in relation to this issue and … have been able to safely return those 46 people to Vietnam,” Mr Dutton told Australian media.
However, Mrs Tran told the ABC the Vietnamese immigration officials who greeted them at the airport put on a show for their Australian counterparts.
“It was staged to create the impression to the Australians that we’d be well treated,” she said via a translator.
“However we were immediately taken to a detention centre — Vietnam didn’t keep its promise … I was held for three months and I was beaten.”
Mrs Tran was released but later sentenced to three years in prison for illegally leaving the country.
She decided to flee earlier this month with her children before her term was due to begin.
UNHCR expresses ‘profound concern’
In the last two years, Australia has intercepted and returned 113 Vietnamese asylum seekers, according to Immigration Department figures.
The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Canberra has criticised Australia’s turn-back policy.
“UNHCR has expressed profound concern at the turn-back of asylum seekers from Australia, without adequate consideration of international protection needs,” a spokesman for the agency said.
“A lack of proper and comprehensive screening procedures denies asylum seekers their basic right to seek safety, and risks their return to danger and persecution.”
Australia has formalised its immigration arrangements with Vietnam, signing a memorandum of understanding in December despite cases of asylum seekers alleging abuse on their return.
A spokesman for Mr Dutton denied Australia was breaching international protocols by returning asylum seekers to a country where they face persecution.
“Any people smuggling boat that attempts to reach Australia will be intercepted and turned back,” he said this week.
“The Australian Government does not comment on matters associated with on-water operations.”
Family faces uncertain future
For Mrs Tran and her three children, the future is very uncertain. Her children are aged 4, 10 and 12.
The Vietnamese community in Australia has rallied to support the families stranded in Indonesia.
Donations from Australia have paid for rental accommodation, keeping the families out of Indonesian immigration detention facilities.
Any change of heart from the Indonesian Government could see them detained or sent back to Vietnam.
If that happens, Mrs Tran says she will be thrown in jail for seeking asylum and her young children will be on the street.
First published on ABC, 23/02/2017