Published July 19, 2017 in Episode 76
41-year-old Trần Thị Lụa is speaking to me from a detention center in Indonesia.
“It’s very dangerous out in the ocean, anything can happen," she says. "If I go, I might die. But if I stay in Việt Nam, I may still die. I'd be more content to have my body eaten by the fish in the sea than have a state-authorized death at the hands of the Vietnamese communists.”
Lụa is a mother of three. She comes from a fishing family and used to work at the fishing port outdoor market in Bình Thuận province, in Southern Việt Nam. In 2015, she and her family attempted to escape Việt Nam on a boat of 46. But they all failed. Back in Việt Nam she planned her next escape, this time with 43-year-old Trần Thị Thanh Loan, who had attempted to flee by boat just a few months before her.
Lụa is sitting beside Loan at the detention center now. When I ask if they are sisters, she laughs and says, “We’re friends! But we share a last name, so we’re basically sisters.”
Besides having very similar names, Lụa and Loan, have something else in common. They are both mothers who were prosecuted by the Vietnamese government after their returns from Australia. The two met each other while being tried in court, and after they received their sentences, they became friends.
“It took us 21 days to get to Australia," Lụa says. "After that, we just floated there on the sea. And that’s when the naval ships stopped us.”
In the last four years, 30 refugee boats have been turned away upon arrival to Australia’s shores. Collectively the boats carried 765 asylum seekers from many different countries, including Việt Nam. By 2017 Australia had turned away more than a hundred Vietnamese asylum seekers arriving by boat -- including the two friends.
Loan and her family left home on March 7, 2015. It was July 1 that same year when Lụa and her children left Việt Nam.
“We arrived in Australia and there was the Minister of Immigration and a Vietnamese interpreter," Lụa recalls. "She read us a document, saying the Australian Government will send the group back to Việt Nam. I stood up and said, ‘If you send us back to Việt Nam, we will be put in prison.’ But the Minister of Immigration said, ‘No, the Vietnamese government has made a deal with the Australian government and promised us that they won’t arrest or imprison you. They will help you find jobs and help your children go to school. So don’t worry, the Vietnamese government has already promised that they will never put you in prison.’
At that point, we decided to stop trying, and if this other country didn’t want to accept us, then that would be it. When they transferred us back home, the immigration in Sài Gòn, the police of Bình Thuận province, and the local police of La Gi commune were all waiting for us.”
Things went south for Lụa, just as they had for Loan months earlier. By then, the new wave of Vietnamese boat people seeking asylum in Australia was attracting some attention, not only among Australian refugee communities but also internationally, thanks in part to Australian journalist and refugee advocate, Shira Sebban.
Sebban says: “It actually started late last July when I read an article in a national newspaper called The Australian Newspaper: ‘kids orphaned due to parents’ asylum bid and the word orphan was in inverted commas.”
The news story was accompanied by a photo of Loan and her four children, aged four to sixteen, standing outside the courtroom in Việt Nam. It was because of this photo that Shira Sebban first learned of the Vietnamese boat people.
But the larger problem would compel her to spearhead a campaign to help not only Loan but the other Vietnamese asylum seekers as well. As we learn from Lụa, the one thing that all these cases had in common was the Vietnamese government’s pattern of broken promises.
Instead of driving her home, they took Lụa into custody, separating her from her children and the other adults who were arrested. She says: “They detained each one of us in a different place. I didn’t even know who ended up where or anything like that.”
Similarly, when Loan and her husband, Lợi, returned from their trip in March, both were sentenced to jail time. Their lawyer, Võ An Đôn says this was unusual:
“The Vietnamese government believed that their crimes were punishable by law, which collectively included: buying food and supplies, steering the ship, commandeering the ship and propositioning people to escape with them. Generally, when refugees are returned to Việt Nam, they receive minor punishments like monetary fines rather than jail time. I don’t really understand why in these two instances they were sent to jail. But the new penal code in Việt Nam classifies these crimes as punishable by jail time. Currently, the new law does punish this crime with very harsh sentences.”
Because she has four children who would otherwise have been left without parents, Loan was allowed to stay home while her husband Lợi served time. But the conditions he endured were severe.
Loan says, “I thought he was going to die in prison. The beatings are so brutal in there, but if you die they will just say you committed suicide. That’s how the communist state police is. They never admit to what they do, they’ll just publicly say you killed yourself even if the truth is that they beat you to death.”
Loan says the brutality alone is reason enough to never return to Việt Nam.
“They’re so evil. That’s why I’m not going back. There’s more honor in dying in a foreign country than at the hands of the state police. It’s so shameful. If they were to beat him to death in there, they would have just said that he killed himself because I left home and never admit to the abuse. The police are ruthless like that.”
Lụa’s situation was similar. When she was detained, authorities initially kept her without an arrest order.
She describes what happened: “They locked me up for 26 days to get my testimonies. They said that after I tell the truth, they would let me go. They lied to me like that every day.
Then on August 18, they lied to me by saying, ‘Pack your clothes, you are going home to your children.’ I thought I was going home, but when they drove me home they read the arrest order. I told them I didn’t commit any crimes. They ended up detaining me for three months. The man there told me: ‘Even if you don’t sign, we will still take you away... We don't care about what we promised. We had to promise that with the Australian government so they would send you back. If we didn't promise them that they wouldn't send you back.’ I then asked him, ‘So that means the Vietnamese government lied to the Australian government?’
He yelled at me, told me to shut up, and he even wanted to slap me. He then ordered the policemen to drag and push me into the prison van. They took me to Phan Thiết. I was held there for one month and five days. During that time he continued to lie to me and tried to make me sign all kinds of papers, saying that if I signed I could go home. I told him that he could take me wherever he wants but I won't sign anything or listen to him, because he had already lied to me many times.”
Lụa never admitted to any crime. She was eventually sentenced to 30 months in prison. But she was telling the truth about what the authorities had promised and failed to follow through on.
Major General Andrew Bottrell of Australian border control confirmed the Vietnamese authorities lied to the Australian government.
Refugee advocate Sebban says that the Australian government, “was assured by the Vietnamese authorities that no one would be punished. What happened was Việt Nam did not follow through with that and in fact the Vietnamese court said no that was never the case. So it’s unclear how clear that assurance was. Australia said no it was definitely assured both in writing and orally that these people would not be punished. The problem is Australia now sees that these people are punished and still sends them back. That’s the problem.”
She’s referring to a boat turnback policy under a program called “Operation Sovereign Borders.” Essentially a border protection program, it began in 2013 under the administration of then Prime Minister Tony Abbott. In 2016, the current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, reiterated the importance of Operation Sovereign Borders on Australia’s Sky News:
“It is a critically important, strong message to send to the people smugglers. They must know that the door to Australia is closed to those who seek to come here by boat with a people smuggler. It is closed. We accept thousands of refugees, and we do so willingly. But we will not tolerate any repeat of the people smuggling ventures which resulted in 1200 deaths at sea under the Labor Party, and 50,000 unauthorized arrivals.”
According to Turnbull, the Australian government’s central concern is to end the “multibillion dollar business” of people smuggling. The program doesn’t exactly turn back all boats. It includes a new screening process that takes place before the asylum seekers reach land. Both Lụa and Loan went through this screening process before they were told they would be turned back. Apparently, when they were screened, neither qualified to be taken in as refugees.
To be accepted, asylum seekers need to prove that they are being persecuted in their home country. States want to know that asylum seekers are not fleeing home for primarily economic reasons. Lụa says her economic situation was never the issue.
“It’s not that we couldn’t find work. We can definitely work. We still have jobs." Lụa says, "My family has a business, has boats to go out to the sea. The Vietnamese government wants us to go out to the sea, fish, and guard the sea and islands. But when Chinese ships attacked, and seized our boats, we informed the Vietnamese authorities in our town, and asked them what they are going to do. They just nodded along and told us to continue to go out to the sea. When the Chinese continued to ram into our boats, killed our fisherman, all they said was, 'can only look, can not say anything.' That’s how life is in Việt Nam, you can’t say anything.
So, under that much oppression, how could we live freely in Việt Nam? We didn’t have freedom, no freedom of speech, nothing at all. We didn’t even have the voice to speak up. When we’ve spoken up, they’ve arrested and beaten us, leaving us without any options. When they’re done, they threaten us. They say, ‘From this day forward, are you going to keep talking?’ So we are left feeling like we don’t have any voice at all.”
For both Lụa and Loan, living in Việt Nam meant having a perpetual fear of being harassed, surveilled, and beaten by police.
By January, Loan’s husband, Lợi, had been in prison for over half a year and Lụa and Loan knew it was only time before the two of them would share the same fate behind bars. The desperate but determined mothers did what they thought was best for the future of their children.
“I would rather die in the ocean, than let the Vietnamese communists beat me to death. The three of us decided to go a second time. It was a very tough trip. We started in the evening of the second day of Tết. On the morning of the third of Tết, we went on the boat.”
Neither Sebban nor the families’ lawyer, Võ An Đôn knew anything of their whereabouts that night and in the following days. The families just disappeared.
But in the end, Sebban didn’t need to worry.
“After twelve days, the motor broke, so we drifted into Indonesia’s Java Island," Lụa recounts. "The villagers called the police and helped us get onto shore. We asked to stay just long enough to repair the motor, and we would continue our journey to Australia. But they said for our safety, they would have to keep us here.”
That’s how the group of 18 -- three families with 12 children -- ended up in Indonesia. With Sebban’s help, the families were able to afford hostel accommodations for a short while to avoid being immediately deported. the funds for hostel stay were limited. They ended up under the care of Indonesian immigration, periodically moving between motels. But after their interviews with the the UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency, the families ended up in the dreary immigration detention center.
“Here in the immigration detention center, we are given two days -- two days-- where one of the nice officials may come, feel bad for our children, and let them out of the rooms to play in the larger workspace," Lụa says. "There they can run around and play for a little bit. But on the days when a stricter official comes by, the children just stand by and observe. For us adults, seeing the 30 meters of open space, it doesn’t look like much, but the children enjoy it. They’re excited to have space to run around in. Every day, they count down the days until they’ll get to run around and play again. On the days they know the nicer man is coming by, they wake up early, brush their teeth, rinse their mouths, eat breakfast, and wait. They just stand right by the door and wait for him. When I watch them waiting, I just want to cry. It makes me want to cry just talking about it and picturing them waiting by that door and screaming with excitement when it’s finally opened. As soon as he opens the door, they run out to play.”
On the days they know the nicer man is coming by, they wake up early, brush their teeth, rinse their mouths, eat breakfast, and wait. They just stand right by the door and wait for him.
Life in the detention center isn’t easy for the children or the adults. It is essentially a waiting game for all of them. But during this time, their story was shared around the world, and things began to look up for Lụa, Loan, and their families.
Lụa tells us, “There were some international campaigns that supported us, some Indonesian people also helped us, and a woman named Sunshine. Everyone has tried to support us. Ms. Sunshine helped to get us instant noodles and clothing. A local Catholic organization has also helped to get us blankets, a lot of necessities, extra food, some clothing because since we got onto the boat, each one of us only had one set of clothes. Wherever we were taken when we first arrived here, we walked barefoot, without shoes. Later, an international campaign raised enough money to buy us shoes and clothes so we could change."
In addition to receiving attention and support, in May the families were eventually granted refugee status by the UNHCR. Now they’re just waiting to be accepted into another country like the United States or Canada.
It’s not certain where their next destination will be, but perhaps they have grown familiar with uncertainty. Fleeing into the unknown worked out for them, due in part to the people who advocated on their behalf and supported them when no governments would.
Lụa says, “I hope that you can speak up for those of us in here, that the podcast also speaks up for us so the authorities can know that international campaigns helped us survive, so we can live in another country, so our children can have a future.”
Correction: In our original article, we misidentified the woman who helped provide Lua's family with noodles.
Shira Sebban's campaign for the children is close to reaching her set goal of $15,000. To donate to this fundraiser, visit their gofundme page.