New Vietnamese 'boat people' risk all to go Down Under

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Human traffickers cheat clients with false hopes of striking it rich in Australia

The human trafficking boat, stocked with instant noodles and water, slated to take 25 Vietnamese nationals to Australia for between $8,000 and $13,000 each was seized by coastguards in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province in June of 2012. Photo by Nguyen Long

It is a journey the hardiest adventure traveler or even an extreme sports enthusiast would balk at traveling almost 3,000 kilometers in the open ocean on a rudimentary fishing boat, subsisting on instant noodles and water.

And if this by itself were not enough, horror stories of people who had left on similar journeys in the aftermath of the Vietnam War being attacked, robbed and raped by pirates, not to mention dying of thirst and hunger are legion.

According to Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), in April 1976, the first boat carrying Vietnamese asylum seekers arrived on Australia's northern shores and in the following five years, over 50 additional boats with more than 2,000 Vietnamese landed on Australian shores.

However, nearly forty years after the Vietnam War ended, there are some who are still willing to risk all and try to migrate illegally to Australia, hoping to strike it rich there. It appears that they are not dissuaded by warnings from relevant agencies that they are likely to lose everything and be forced to return home.

On June 11, the Ba Ria Vung Tau People's Court handed down jail terms to four people for organizing illegal boat trips for dozens of Vietnamese nationals seeking to get to Australia.

Nguyen Dinh Kinh, 47, was sentenced to four years, while Pham Van Tuong, 59, got two and a half years in prison. Tran Van Gioi, 47, and Nguyen Ngoc Loi, 43, received three and a half years and one and a half years, respectively.

Police said Tuong began smuggling people out of Vietnam in April last year and managed to send six to Australia by boat. No information has been made available on the current fate and status of the six. Tuong's service was busted by local coastguards two months later as he was preparing for the second trip.

Investigations found that the group's initial clients were charged US$6,000 each, but the fee was later raised to between $8,000 and $13,000. Many of the would-be emigrants came from Tuong's hometown in the north-central province of Nghe An and neighboring Ha Tinh Province.

Police said the human traffickers told their clients that they could easily find jobs with high wages in Australia and lead a wealthy life there.

They collected a total of $120,000 and even allowed some people to go on their boat on credit, to be paid after emigrants earned money Down Under.

Tuong and Kinh hired Loi to pilot the boat for VND500 million ($24,000).

Loi was arrested with 10 people onboard when docking the boat off Ba Ria-Vung Tau on June 21 last year. The coastguards arrested 18 others on the same day as they were taking a smaller boat to take them to Loi's boat.

A total of 25 clients were fined VND3.5 million ($168) each.

Investigators found that the group had organized another voyage in early May last year to send around 50 people to Australia, but they were arrested while sailing in Indonesian seas.

In another case, a court in Ba Ria-Vung Tau last June sentenced six people to between three and six years in jail for illegally taking people into Australia in 2010 and 2011.

In April this year, the Australian Embassy in Vietnam said in a statement that 20 Vietnamese "irregular maritime arrivals" had been transferred to the regional processing center on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

These people will undergo local (PNG) immigration and quarantine clearance processes, it said.

While it was not clear what would happen to the Vietnamese nationals next, an Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) spokesman said: "The completion of this transfer reaffirms the strong message of deterrence for anyone considering risking their lives on dangerous people smuggling (human trafficking) boats.

"There will be no advantage for boat arrivals.

"Anyone arriving in Australia in this way may be transferred to a regional processing center in PNG or Nauru."

The Australian government would continue to implement the recommendations of the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, whose central principle provides that people choosing to travel to Australia by boat should receive no advantage, the embassy's statement said.

Last November, Australian Ambassador Hugh Borrowman visited Nghe An Province to reinforce collaboration between the Australian government and the province to fight people trafficking.

Since 2009, eleven boats have been organized by Vietnamese people smugglers to sail directly or via Indonesia to Australia, carrying almost 270 people. Most of the passengers on these boats were from Nghe An Province.

"There is no advantage in people risking lives and fortunes to reach Australia in this way," said Borrowman.

The new policy means that anyone who attempts to travel by human trafficking boats to Australia is most likely to be returned to Vietnam before setting foot in Australia, "having lost all of what they paid, and with a police record for departing Vietnam without a passport or visa," he said.

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