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Fears for 17 missing refugee children



Natalie O'Brien

January 29, 2012

SEVENTEEN asylum seeking boys suspected of being trafficked from Vietnam have vanished from immigration facilities around the country, including the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre.

Despite some of the boys disappearing months ago - including at least seven from the Broadmeadows facility - authorities admit they have not been searching for them. The safety of the boys, mainly Catholics from the north of Vietnam, is ultimately the responsibility of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

The Immigration Department says it is now trying to locate the boys, but the lack of concern for the runaways has angered members of the Vietnamese community, who have accused the department of keeping them in the dark. ''It is quite alarming that children can disappear like that,'' said Phong Nguyen, federal president of the Vietnamese Community in Australia. ''We don't know what is their situation, and if they are living underground, then other adults might abuse them.''

The boys, the youngest of whom is believed to be 15, arrived by boat on Christmas Island between June 2010 and May last year. It is unclear how the boys escaped from the detention facilities, but The Sunday Age can reveal that until now police have not been searching for them and the Vietnamese embassy in Canberra was unaware they were missing. ''We have now asked [the department] to investigate and tell us what is happening. We have still heard nothing,'' an embassy official said. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young condemned the situation. ''This is a clear and awful example of what is going wrong with the system, when the minister is the only one responsible for them, and advocating for them, and he lost them [the boys],'' she said.

Serious concerns have been raised about the sudden arrival of dozens of unaccompanied Vietnamese children as young as six in the past 18 months. There are fears that they may have been trafficked to Australia for illegal labour or for prostitution.

Senator Hanson-Young said the sudden arrival of large numbers of unaccompanied Vietnamese children - among them girls just 12 years old - indicated ''there is something going on''.

Before the boys disappeared, they told advocates that their parents had been tricked into handing them into the custody of an older Vietnamese man who promised them work and education in Australia. Melbourne-based refugee advocate Pamela Kerr said the boys' parents appeared to have been duped and exploited.

''These are simple parents who have been misled,'' she said. ''They have been convinced to pay money for their children to travel in the belief that they will be taken care of and allowed to work and study in Australia. When they get here they find that is not the case.''

However, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus told Parliament the AFP was not investigating the disappearance of the children and did not hold any concerns for them from a ''trafficking perspective''. Inquiries had failed to find any links to child-trafficking networks.

An AFP spokeswoman said the disappearance of the children was a matter for the Immigration Department. The children have not been reported as missing. But a spokeswoman for Mr Bowen said: ''The department has accorded a high priority to the location of these detainees in co-operation with relevant agencies, including police.

''This group of detainees is subject to an ongoing compliance operation by the department and it would be inappropriate to go into further detail.''

The government was concerned by any escapes from immigration detention, she said. The Sunday Age has been told the man who sent the children, including his daughter, by boat is known to authorities. He arrived in 2009, was rejected as a refugee, and went back to Vietnam.

The department has revealed that 36 children have gone missing or escaped from immigration facilities around the country since July 2010. Nineteen have since been located. A spokeswoman for the department said one of those found had since admitted that he was not a minor.

Refugee advocates who are familiar with the spate of boat arrivals in recent years say the Vietnamese arrivals stand out as different. They say even a number of Middle Eastern asylum seekers who arrived on the same boat as two young unaccompanied Vietnamese girls tried to raise concerns with authorities that the girls might be victims of trafficking. Mr Nguyen said Melbourne's Vietnamese community had tried to find out about the missing boys but authorities were reluctant to reveal anything. No one from the police or the Immigration Department had called. The boys must have had outside connections or help to leave, Mr Nguyen said, and he called on anyone harbouring the children to let the Vietnamese community know whether they were safe. ''They are in a very vulnerable position,'' he said. ''We want to know they are safe and not being abused.''

He also suggested that the department make it known that the children would not be punished if they came forward

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/fears-for-17-missing-refugee-children-20120128-1qnc8.html#ixzz1kqsWH9jx

2012 Jan 29