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While an inquiry into children in detention has been told psychological damage is being covered up, two Vietnamese boys have given immigration the slip in Darwin. By Max Opray.

Vietnamese asylum-seeker boys on the run

It was an eclectic mix clustered along the footsteps of South Australia’s Parliament House last Saturday, where three separate protests had been scheduled for the same crisp winter morning. First to speak were the farmers, out in force to rail against the encroachment of the mining boom on agricultural areas. Last up were leather-clad bikers demonstrating against anti-bikie legislation, who awaited their turn encircled around the protest area like a ring of bouncers.

Sandwiched between these causes were the Woodville High School students, calling for the return of two asylum seeker classmates who, on June 26, were whisked out of the community overnight to a Darwin detention facility. The circumstances surrounding this protest were even more unlikely than the sight of Gypsy Joker strongmen rubbing shoulders with Yorke Peninsula barley growers: the students were asking Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to free two children no longer in his possession. Just days before the rally, with songs written, shirts printed and placards painted, the incarcerated youths – who I will call Bao and Hien – had taken matters into their own hands.

For two years they had been living in suburban Adelaide, after 17 months languishing in a medley of detainment camps. Suddenly stuck in Darwin’s Wickham Point detention centre – a place described by visitors as akin to a maximum security prison – these 16-year-old maths geeks decided they had had enough.

Serco, the private operator of Wickham Point, was well aware of the pair’s ambitions. The day before they made their move I received an emotional phone call at dawn from a source: “[Bao] has been banned from attending school lessons at Darwin’s Sanderson Middle School. They say he’s become withdrawn and is planning to escape.”

Another detainee had dobbed him in. Such attempts can result in a clampdown on other inmates, including the cancelling of prized field trips to the world outside. Bao, known to be a confident boy, talked his way into attending school despite the ban, and on July 30, he and Hien were taken to their afternoon classes as usual. Key to their plan was a recent concession by Serco: no guards in class.  Once in school, the two model students politely asked for permission to go to the bathroom. They did not return.

Land seizures in Vietnam

In the Northern Territory, Father Peter Huan worries about what will happen. Himself a former Vietnamese refugee, the pastor leads an Indigenous congregation at Daly River, moonlighting in his spare time as a sort of unofficial counsellor at NT detention centres. Speaking on the phone from Darwin, he sounds exhausted.

A separate crisis has enveloped his day. A three-year-old Vietnamese boy, who’d spent his entire brief life in detention, had recently been flown to Royal Adelaide Hospital following a diagnosis of leukaemia. Doctors feared the toddler was dying, and Father Huan was attempting to secure visitation rights for members of the South Australian Vietnamese community, who wanted to provide food and company to the parents and child.

In the end, they got access. His counselling of Bao days earlier was less successful.

“I told him he shouldn’t run away – what if one day he needs to go to the hospital?” Father Huan says. “What if he is caught driving without a licence? So much can happen.”

Father Huan is uniquely placed to understand what the boys were going through. Like most of the Vietnamese asylum seekers currently in detention, he fled his homeland due to his Catholicism. He left postwar Vietnam on a boat in 1979 after the communist government detained him in a camp for a year as punishment for attempting to become a priest. These days life in Vietnam is better for most, but Catholics remain a target. One of the main forms of persecution comes via corrupt state-sanctioned land seizures, which is what Bao and Hien claim pushed them to escape to Australia.

“The government tries to take the land and rice fields of the church and Catholic people without compensation – it is still happening,” says Father Huan. “Factories want to use the land, so corruptible people take it.”

Vietnamese refugees sent back

The Australian government has in the past year ramped up the deportation of Vietnamese asylum seekers. Those returned, regardless of how genuine their claims for asylum were in the first place, become de facto enemies of the state.

According to Human Rights Watch, between 150 and 200 activists and bloggers are serving prison time in Vietnam for “abusing freedom and democracy to infringe upon the interests of the state”. An Australia–Vietnam human rights dialogue took place in Hanoi on July 28 – it is not known whether either country brought up the other’s alleged abuse of asylum seekers. For its part, Human Rights Watch urged Australia to press the Vietnamese government on repression of freedom of religion, among other issues.

Bao and Hien thought they were destined for deportation and decided becoming an enemy of the Australian state was preferable to life as an enemy of the Vietnamese government. Father Huan notes the two had closely followed the progress of the 15 asylum seekers who went on the run in Adelaide around the time the boys were redetained – many of whom are their friends.

Those 15 are understood to have made their way to Melbourne, where they are living with Vietnamese families. Adelaide is nearly 10 times larger than Darwin, yet apparently not of sufficient size to permit anonymity. Father Huan says Darwin is too small a place to hide for long, and notes there is “only one freeway out of town”. Morrison’s office confirmed that the search for the boys continues.

“The minister shares public concerns about the whereabouts of the individuals who have absconded and will continue to support the efforts of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s compliance field officers to locate them,” a spokesperson said.

As for those at the rally back in Adelaide, news of the escape brought mixed emotions. Members of all major political parties were invited to speak, but Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young was the only one to take up the offer. She told the crowd it was a conflict of interest that Scott Morrison should be both the guardian of unaccompanied minors and their detainer.

“Scott Morrison has failed to look after these children, and it is because of his threats, his department’s threats, his government’s cruelty, that these children are now missing,” she said.

On the steps of Parliament House was Kim Dao, the boys’ maths teacher at Woodville High School, who notified the school when they didn’t turn up for class the morning after they were taken away by immigration. Like Father Huan, she had been a special mentor on account of her own experiences leaving Vietnam under duress. She is also familiar with one of the others on the run.

“My dad was in a concentration camp for over 10 years,” she says. “Every time the local police knocked on the door, my mum told us to go hide. One reason the boys ran away is they were terrified they will be sent back to Vietnam – jail terms, beating, questioning, their family will suffer.”

Dao wants the federal government to at least allow them to keep living in the community until they finish year 12. Those who orchestrated the rally hope Morrison will consider using his personal discretion to offer some kind of carrot to entice the missing asylum seekers to turn themselves in.

Children in detention inquiry cover-up

It would have to be one hell of a carrot, however, if the revelations from the national inquiry into children in immigration detention are anything to go by. Late last week, the chief psychiatrist responsible for detention centre mental health testified that there had been a deliberate cover-up of the psychological damage inflicted on child asylum seekers. Up until a month ago, Dr Peter Young was in charge of International Health and Medical Services, the private contractor that provides medical care to detention centres. Young said a report submitted to the immigration department was met with a “negative” response.

The immigration department “reacted with alarm and have asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting”, he said.

Young advised the inquiry there had been 128 cases of child detainees committing acts of self-harm in the past 15 reporting months, not including those children held on Nauru. In a subsequent interview with Guardian Australia, Young claimed the immigration department’s entire approach towards asylum seekers in detention was geared towards breaking their resolve. Young argued that the end goal was to pressure detainees into giving up their attempts to come to Australia. But, as Morrison has found out with Bao, Hien and the other 15, broken people can react in unanticipated ways. 

For all the mysteries surrounding the present circumstances and future fate of these missing asylum seekers, the biggest unanswered question is perhaps this: who is helping them evade capture? Clearly they aren’t acting alone, but with the threat of jail for anyone caught aiding and abetting the absconders, it seems for now such stories will remain untold.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 9, 2014 as "Escape from Morrison". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.