Vietnam remains a one-party state that arrests and hands down long prison sentences to government critics, including bloggers and Roman Catholic activists. New York-based Human Rights Watch alleges torture in custody is routine. Christian groups have reported alleged suspicious deaths in custody.
Most independent human rights activists say that repression has increased over the last two years.
Little is known about the background of those that have made the trip this year.
At least some of those who have arrived in the recent past are Roman Catholics who took part in a protest near a cathedral in the capital, Hanoi, said Kaye Bernard, a refugee advocate who has met some arrivals from Hanoi. Others are said to be involved in land disputes with local authorities.
“I don’t think you can generalize, but there has been an increase in repression in Vietnam. The sentences are getting longer. There is more fear,” said Hoi Trinh, an Australian lawyer of Vietnamese descent who heads an organization helping asylum-seekers. “If more people are more fearful, then more of them will flee.”
Peter Hansen, a lawyer and Vietnam expert who advised in a number of appeals involving recent arrivals from Vietnam, said the small number of cases he was aware of did not involve intellectuals, bloggers or political dissidents targeted by the current Vietnamese government campaign. However, he cautioned that current Australian guidelines on the validity of claims from Vietnam did not take into account the reality of persecution against certain religious sects in specific parts of Vietnam.
“I can’t account for why there has been a significant increase this year, but I can tell you now that I’m absolutely certain that there is a proportion of that number who weren’t motivated to come here for economic reasons,” he said.
Neighboring countries like Cambodia have continued to receive small numbers of asylum-seekers since the 1990s. Many thousands of Vietnamese have left the country to work in Asia or beyond, either illegally or as exported labor. Many do not return after their contracts end.
Australia appears to be the destination of choice, but the country is already facing a record number of asylum-seekers this year. Under public pressure, the Australian government has made it more difficult for people to be considered for asylum and often detained migrants on isolated islands away from lawyers. Critics say Canberra is avoiding its responsibilities under the UN refugee convention by taking these measures.
Along with other nationalities, Vietnamese are kept in detention, either on the mainland, on Christmas Island or on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus. Families and unaccompanied children are kept in lower-security detention facilities. Four Vietnamese, including a teenager, escaped from one such center in Darwin last week, according to authorities.
Australia’s desire to get tough on Vietnamese arrivals appears to have run into a problem: The government in Hanoi has shown no interest in accepting the asylum-seekers back, according to activists and lawyers.
Australia cannot simply put the migrants on the first plane to Hanoi. They need to have travel documents issued to them by Vietnamese authorities, who must first confirm their identities.