Fifteen children fled community detention during a ministerial review. A month later, they are still missing. By Max Opray.

Adelaide child asylum seekers on the run

One month ago today, as a ship full of hopeful Tamils sailed across the Indian Ocean, two Vietnamese boys in suburban Adelaide arrived home from school. 

Bao and Hien, both 16, had made it. Inseparable since meeting in March 2011 on a boat bound for Australia, together they endured a perilous sea journey and 17 months of detention, at Christmas Island and other facilities, before finally winding up in the same community detention home in South Australia. 

All accounts of the boys paint Bao as the tougher of the two, a pillar of strength and confidence that the polite, softly spoken Hien would turn towards during their frequent dark moments. Both had lost contact with and were unaware of the fate of their families back in Vietnam.

By the time of this late June afternoon, the duo had become integrated into Australian life, model students at Woodville High School and key players for the Xa Quê Hu’o’ng Vietnamese community soccer club. According to a member of the squad, the team name translates rather fittingly to Far Away From My Mother Homeland.

The boys, whose names I have changed, would have felt particularly at home on June 26: just a day earlier, fellow Vietnamese boat refugee Hieu Van Le had been named as the next governor of South Australia. Their dark moments looked to be a thing of the past, but after Bao and Hien returned home from school that day, there was a knock at the door that would reset the whole ordeal.

A team of immigration officers and Federal Police stood at the threshold, bearing a letter from the legal guardian of the children, Scott Morrison. The key line from the letter, which has been obtained by The Saturday Paper, reads as follows: “The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection has made a decision that your residence determination is no longer in the public interest.”

After being given a few minutes to pack their belongings, they were swiftly removed to the Inverbrackie detention centre in the Adelaide Hills, considered one of the more child-friendly facilities around, notwithstanding the fact conditions there have driven a seven-year-old back into nappies and his 11-year-old brother into nightly fits of screaming. 

The comforts of Inverbrackie would not be for Bao and Hien. At 3 o’clock the next morning, they were woken and escorted outside by circling Serco security guards. In two different cars, they were transported to Adelaide Airport, where they boarded separate flights to the same destination. One went to Darwin via Sydney, the other via Melbourne.

On each flight, the boys were flanked by Serco staff, with two more seated in the row behind. When Bao lingered in the toilet a little too long, a guard thumped on the door to see what was holding him up. The boy may have been on a plane 10,000-metres up, but the guards were taking no chances. 

On landing in Darwin, the pair were taken to Wickham Point detention centre, built on a site that would have housed gas workers instead, except it had been deemed unfit for human habitation due to severe mosquito and midge infestations. The pair have remained in the high-security facility ever since. In a small mercy, they were permitted to stay in the same room.

Their re-detention is not a particularly remarkable event in this age of Sovereign Borders, but the reaction it sparked has been. Back in Adelaide, a third Vietnamese asylum seeker housed with Bao and Hien caught wind of what was happening and decided to make a break for it. Over the coming days 14 others would follow. None have been seen or heard from since. 

It was not just the fate of Bao and Hien that had them spooked. A former carer for one of the asylum seekers on the run received a late-night call just before they absconded. “For them they are very polite, very respectful,” she recalled. “So to get a call at 11.30 at night I knew something was wrong and answered right away.”

What had her former charge concerned was that he and the other asylum seekers had been called in for “Age Determination” meetings, where those previously considered to be underage were allegedly being systematically re-assessed to be adults, unless they could prove otherwise.   

Authorities have had no luck so far in finding the missing asylum seekers. South Australia Police issued a statement declaring they held “no concerns for the safety or welfare” of those missing – some of them minors as young as 14 – and declared the search was a Department of Immigration and Border Protection responsibility.

For their part, immigration officials have been tight-lipped on details. Last week, the radio silence on the subject was broken by a spokesperson for Scott Morrison, who issued a warning that anyone in the community found to be helping the missing asylum seekers could face jail time for their efforts. 

1 . Demanding protocols

Morrison’s office has also been circumspect regarding Bao and Hien, and did not respond to inquiries by The Saturday Paper. There was no answer as to what about their community detention was deemed “no longer in the public interest”.   

Re-detaining the boys was certainly not in the interest of the Xa Quê Hu’o’ng soccer team, which in one week lost not only a star striker in Bao and a miserly defender in Hien, but three of the asylum seekers now on the run.

The teachers and students of Woodville High School also harbour reservations. Their principal, Meredith Edwards, says the school had no idea what was going on when Bao and Hien failed to show up for class that morning. She claims no one notified the school that the boys had been re-detained. Indeed, she was unaware the pair were community detention asylum seekers in the first place.

“We’ve got 66 different culture groups at this school – none of us realised [Bao and Hien] were under such pressure and have been all year, worrying whether they would be taken back into closed detention at any time,” she said.

“They seem to have felt that it was something of an embarrassment they didn’t want to share with people that they were on community detention. They felt people would look down on them as criminals.” 

Edwards and the principals of eight other schools have teamed up to demand the implementation of protocols to support young asylum seekers attending school, including the provision of independent legal representation for students. She says Bao and Hien are still considered a part of the school community.

“They were wonderful students, highly academic, well behaved, polite, always thanking people, seeing this as a marvellous opportunity for them to have a full life away from fear. I hate to think they are so fearful at the moment and that we can’t extend our support to them.”

For year 11 school captain Wathnak Vy, the boys’ sudden removal was a shock. The Cambodian-born student, who arrived in Australia at a similar time but via less controversial means, used to go to Bao and Hien for help with homework. 

“Vietnamese people are good at maths so when I’m stuck I ask them to help with my assignments,” he said.

Other students have joined together to raise awareness about what has happened, with efforts including an online petition to return the boys. So far, it has attracted more than 9000 signatures. A rally is planned for next Saturday outside Parliament House in Adelaide.

Former Woodville High teacher Lori Hocking visited Bao and Hien twice at Wickham Point in early July, bringing them packages from the school that included letters from fellow students. The first thing Hocking noticed were cuts covering Bao’s hands and face along with a look of exhaustion in Hien’s eyes. On questioning, Bao boasted he’d acquired the marks playing soccer with the Iranians in the facility; Hien said he was tired from staying up late to watch the World Cup. 

They might not have been subjected to physical trauma, but Hocking says the emotional damage was evident. “[In the package from school] there was a copy of the petition sent to the premier, one boy in particular cried quite a lot when he opened it, at which point we all became tearful,” she said. “Not a place where you want to be seen as weak, in a room with a guard watching.”

The boys were being watched digitally as well as physically: they told Hocking they’d recently deleted their Facebook profiles, after being interrogated about photos on their accounts of the third housemate still on the run. 

2 . Emotional impact

Hocking’s fears about the emotional impact detention is having on Bao and Hien aren’t without basis. The same day she was visiting them in Darwin, Professor Gillian Triggs, president of Australia’s Human Rights Commission, was at public hearings in Melbourne as part of a national inquiry into children in immigration detention. There, Triggs revealed that among nearly 1000 children held in detention by Australian authorities, 128 self-harm incidents were reported between January 2013 and March this year. Among the submissions so far made to the inquiry are proposals that Morrison be removed as the legal guardian of children in immigration detention.

When the inquiry was first announced in February, Morrison said the government would co-operate, but noted the commission only investigates the issue when the Coalition is in power – the last such inquiry took place during the Howard years.

“There were no children in held detention when the Coalition lost office in 2007 – there were over a thousand when Labor lost office,” he told Macquarie Radio at the time.

Morrison’s plans to create a situation where people have absolutely no incentive to try to claim asylum by boat have hit a significant road bump, however, in the shape of the Australian High Court. In a development that could prove significant for Bao and Hien, and others in detention, on Monday a permanent protection visa was granted to an unaccompanied minor from Ethiopia. The 15-year-old boy is understood to be the first refugee who arrived by boat to be granted a permanent visa by Morrison.

The decision is the end result of a complicated legal tussle between Morrison and the child, which began as a challenge to the introduction of a form of temporary protection visa by the minister that was eventually disallowed by the senate. The minister then tried to impose a cap on the number of permanent protection visas, a move that was struck down by the high court.  

Still not dissuaded, Morrison introduced a “national interest test” that he would personally apply to every permanent protection visa application. If the court wouldn’t let him freeze the issuing of visa, he would make it nigh impossible to get one. Criteria for failing the test included considering whether issuing such a visa would provide a product for people smugglers to market, erode community confidence in Australia’s migratory program, or reward people who arrive “illegally”.

Given 28 days to respond, the boy’s lawyers asserted that the test was inconsistent with the Migration Act. Finally, Morrison relented and granted the visa. It is not clear if the “national interest” referred to in this case is one and the same as the “public interest” utilised to renounce Bao and Hien’s community detention status, but the decision is nonetheless a potential game changer for the 1400 asylum seekers currently in detention and who have already been found to be refugees.

Still, it won’t do Bao, Hien and the missing 15 hiding somewhere in South Australia any good unless they too are found to be legitimate refugees, a process understood to still be under determination. As the legal game plays out from here, it seems that at least for the foreseeable future Far Away From My Mother Homeland will struggle to field a full side.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Child asylum seekers on run".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.