Media Release: JRS deeply concerned over return of 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers


HMAS Choules intercepted and returned 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers who had been found in waters north of Australia.

21 April 2015

Jesuit Refugee Service Australia (JRS) has expressed deep concern about the recent interception and return of 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers who had been found in waters north of Australia.

The asylum seekers were intercepted by HMAS Choules and swiftly returned to the city of Vung Tau, south of Ho Chi Minh City, last Friday.

Under customary international law, Australia is obligated not to return an individual to persecution or other serious harm. By intercepting asylum seekers at sea and denying them access to a proper refugee status determination process (RSD), Australia is at risk of breaching its international obligations, and, more importantly, returning people to serious harm.

The government recently passed legislation which empowers the Minister to detain and transfer people on the seas, even if this means that the Minister fails to consider Australia’s international legal obligations, which includes the principle of non-refoulement (the right not to be returned to persecution).

It is important to note that domestic legislation, such as the above, does not overrule a state’s obligations under international law.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the UN agency mandated to protect refugees worldwide – recently reaffirmed that the principle of non-refoulement “applies wherever and however a State exercises its jurisdiction” and “applies when intercepting a vessel outside its territorial waters.”

JRS is concerned that the 46 asylum seekers had their protection claims assessed under the Department of Immigration’s “enhanced screening process” – an attenuated procedure conducted on board Customs and Navy vessels at sea.

Australia’s “enhanced screening” process, which bypasses rigorous refugee assessment standards in favour of a swift resolution, has already led to hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers being denied access to a fair and comprehensive hearing of their claims. Approximately 1,000 asylum seekers have been forcibly returned to Sri Lanka where some have allegedly faced arrest, detention, interrogation and torture.

‘Without a proper assessment, the government cannot determine whether it is safe to return asylum seekers to their country of origin. The swift and clandestine assessment of asylum seekers in transit and en route to Australia represents an unprecedented departure from this country’s already-punitive asylum protocol. Asylum seekers must be given the opportunity to voice their protection claims, be granted access to legal assistance, and have an independent review of the decision,’ says Mr White.

The U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2013 found that Vietnam is an “authoritarian state ruled by a single party” where “security forces committed human rights abuses”. The Report notes that the government places severe restrictions on citizens’ political rights and civil liberties, and highlights the issue of corruption in the judicial system and police.

Human Rights Watch reports that there are an estimated 150-200 political prisoners held in the country.

JRS is also concerned over the safety of ethnic groups fleeing Vietnam, such as the Montagnards and Hmong, who are subjected to arrest, torture, detention, and extra-judicial killing. There are credible reports of the destruction of churches and forced renunciation of faith.

Whilst JRS acknowledges and supports the interest states have in the eradication of people smuggling, it objects to any approach that denies those asylum seekers who have engaged people smugglers from accessing a country’s refugee determination process.

‘Refugees may resort to people smugglers out of desperation and because they have no other means of obtaining a visa to enter the country legally. Until alternative pathways to safety are introduced, asylum seekers will be forced to solicit the services of smugglers so they can reach safety,’ explains Mr White.

JRS urges the government to adopt a policy of transparency vis-à-vis asylum seeker issues, to assess properly the validity of their claim to refugee status, and not to return anyone to a country where they may be subjected to harm.

First published on Jesuit Refugee Services Australia website, 21/04/2015

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I am a writer and editor, passionate about helping refugees and about exploring the challenges life throws at us through my writing. A former journalist, I previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. I am a member of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney (SASS) and have also served on the board of my children’s school for the past 13 years, including three terms as vice-president. My work has appeared in online and print publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Independent Australia, New Matilda, Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward and Online Opinion. I can be contacted at Tôi là nhà văn/nhà báo, và cũng là chủ bút. Với nhiệt tâm muốn giúp đỡ cho người tị nạn và tìm hiểu sâu xa hơn về những khó khăn trong cuộc sống mà chúng ta phải đương đầu qua những bài viết của tôi. Là một cựu phóng viên, trước đây tôi từng cho phát hành các ấn phẩm và đã từng dạy môn Pháp ngữ cho sinh viên đại học. Tôi là thành viên của Tổ chức Giúp đỡ Người Tầm Trú Sydney (Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney, SASS); và trong 13 năm qua, tôi cũng là thành viên trong ban đại diện hội phụ huynh học sinh của trường các con tôi học, với ba nhiệm kỳ làm phó chủ tịch. Những bài viết của tôi được đăng trên báo và trên trang mạng của những tờ báo như The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Independent Australia, New Matilda, Eureka Street, Jewish Literary Journal, The Forward and Online Opinion. Để liên lạc với tôi, xin gởi email đến địa chỉ