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Old Saigon Echo website
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Director: Bai An Tran, Ph.D.

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40 years since post-war exodus, Vietnamese take to sea again, now hoping to stay in Australia

HANOI, Vietnam — Nearly 40 years after hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled the country’s Communist regime by boat, a growing number are taking to the water again.

This year alone, 460 Vietnamese men, women and children have arrived on Australian shores — more than in the last five years combined. The unexpected spike is drawing fresh scrutiny of Hanoi’s deteriorating human rights record, though Vietnam’s flagging economy may also explain why migrants have been making the risky journey.

Australia Vietnam New Boat People

The latest boat carrying Vietnamese cruised into Australia’s Christmas Island one morning last month, according to witnesses on the shore. The hull number showed it was a fishing vessel registered in Kien Giang, a southern Vietnamese province more than 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) from Christmas Island, which is much closer to Indonesia than it is to the Australian mainland.

Many Vietnamese who have reached Australia have been held incommunicado. The government doesn’t release details about their religion and place of origin within Vietnam, both of which might hint at why they are seeking asylum.

Truong Chi Liem, reached via telephone from the Villawood Immigration Detention Center on the outskirts of Sydney, would not reveal details of his case but said, “I’d rather die here than be forced back to Vietnam.”

The 23-year-old left Vietnam five years ago but who was detained en route in Indonesia for 18 months. He said Vietnamese simply looking to make more money shouldn’t attempt a boat journey, but he also said, “If a person is living a miserable life, faced with repression and threats by the authorities there, then they should leave.”

Some Vietnamese reach Australia via Indonesia, following the same route that the far more numerous asylum seekers from South Asia and the Middle East have blazed for more than a decade. Others set sail from Vietnam itself, a far longer and riskier journey.

In separate statements, the Australian and Vietnamese governments said the overwhelming majority or all of the arrivals were economic migrants, which would make them ineligible for asylum. Several Vietnamese community activists in Australia and lawyers who have represented asylum-seekers from the Southeast Asian country dispute that categorization or raised questions over the screening process Australia uses.

Those activists and lawyers also raise concerns about what will become of the migrants, saying that while Australia doesn’t want to keep them, Vietnam doesn’t want to take them back.

“Vietnam’s attitude is that, ‘These are people who will never be our friends, so why should we take them back?’” said Trung Doan, former head of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, a diaspora group.

In a statement, the Vietnamese government said it is “willing to cooperate with concerned parties to resolve this issue.”

Asylum-seekers are a sensitive issue for Vietnam because their journeys undermine Communist Party propaganda that all is well in the country. They also hark back to the mass exodus after the Vietnam War.

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