In debt and desperate, misled Vietnamese seek political asylum in Australia

Promised the right to work on tourist visas, the migrants quickly find themselves penniless and facing deportation.

After four months in limbo about his refugee status and heavily in debt, Hung has some advice for anyone from Vietnam planning to work in Australia on a tourist visa:

“If you are keen on coming to Australia, you’d better choose a legal way,” said the part-time laborer from Hanoi, who was duped into paying an immigration service company to apply for an entry visa on his behalf.

“Arriving with a student or skilled labor visa is OK, but you should think twice about using a tourist visa,” he said.

For years, Hung made ends meet in Hanoi on a monthly income of 10 million dong (US$400), but was unable to build any savings due to the high cost of living in Vietnam’s capital.

After hearing stories of other Vietnamese landing good-paying jobs while visiting Australia, Hung, who spoke to RFA Vietnamese using a pseudonym due to security concerns, decided to travel the 5,000-odd kilometers (3,100 miles) southeast to try his luck.

He hoped to earn a better salary Down Under – where minimum wage workers earn AU$70,000 (US$48,000) a year, or 14 times the average income in Vietnam – and save money to improve his living standard back home.

Vietnamese who are unable to obtain work visas for Australia are eligible for a Work and Holiday Visa, which allows people to work while traveling in the country for up to one year.

Applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 30, have no criminal record and provide evidence that they have completed at least two years of undergraduate study. They must also show that they can support themselves financially while in Australia and have attained a certain level of English proficiency.

In debt and desperate

Hung, who did not disclose his age, had no employer to sponsor a work visa and was unable to meet either the education or English proficiency requirements for a Work and Holiday Visa. But a Vietnamese immigration services company told him that he could legally work in Australia as a tourist.

Australian tourist visas have a significantly lower barrier to obtain. They are good for three months and can be extended to a full year in special circumstances. However, entrants are not eligible to work during their visit.

Unfamiliar with the application process, Hung took on debt to pay 100 million dong (US$4,000) – a substantial amount for the average Vietnamese laborer – to the immigration services company to handle his visa, as well as purchase an airline ticket, and he flew to Australia in July 2023.

Hung had hoped to live and work in Australia for up to two years, to pay off what he had borrowed in getting there and to build wealth. Instead, by October, his tourist visa was about to expire and he had only accrued more debt while supporting himself for three months in a nation with a vastly higher cost of living.

Increasingly desperate, Hung sought help from fellow Vietnamese through social media, and was advised to apply for an Australian Onshore Protection Visa (Subclass 866) as a political refugee, which would allow him to stay in Australia for longer and work legally.

He paid someone AU$1,000 (US$650) to prepare his application, went to the local immigration department to be fingerprinted, and was granted a bridging visa (BVE 050) that allows him to lawfully reside in the country while awaiting a decision on his status.

While Hung will be required to present evidence of his asylum claim, it is unclear when he will be called for an interview, due to the large backlog of applications.

Topping the list for asylum seekers

According to the Australian Department of Home Affairs, 2,905 Vietnamese nationals applied for the Australian Onshore Protection Visa in 2023, making them the largest ethnic group to do so and accounting for 12% of the total number of applicants.

Vietnamese topped the list of asylum applicants in Australia, beating out Indians and Chinese, in each of the last five months of 2023, and ranked second in three other months last year.

Thai officers talk to Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee and asylum seekers in Bangkok, Aug. 28, 2018 after rounding up more than 160 who are believed to be at risk of persecution if they are returned to their homelands. Refugee applications to the Australian Embassy in Vietnam, also sent from Thailand and Australia, tend to increase after political upheavals, says one immigration attorney. (AP)

Many of them end up in situations like Hung’s, nervously awaiting a verdict on their claim to learn whether they will be granted residential status or forced to return home.

The bridging visa does not expire and grants holders the right to work and access a national health insurance assistance program so that they can receive medical care in Australia.

However, if asylum status is denied, the bridging visa will be automatically canceled within 28 days, and the holder will be required to leave the country. Those denied status have the right to appeal the decision with an immigration court.

The chances of being awarded political asylum in Australia are fairly low. In 2023, the Australian Department of Home Affairs processed nearly 1,000 asylum applications, of which only 53, or 5.6%, were approved.

The stakes are considerably higher for applicants who have fled persecution in Vietnam, where the one-party communist state brooks no dissent. Being forced to return home can often mean a jail sentence, or worse.

‘Extraordinary surge’ in applications

Vietnamese-Australian immigration attorney Le Duc Minh told RFA that his law firm has helped many “genuine” Vietnamese political asylum seekers successfully apply for status in Australia.

But he acknowledged that he regularly hears stories like Hung’s from people who ended up in debt after trying to work illegally in the country.

“Some people simply ask me, ‘Please find a way for me to stay longer to earn money and pay off my debts. I borrowed hundreds of millions of dong in Vietnam to make this trip. I cannot go home empty-handed,’” he said.

Minh said he was surprised by what he called an “extraordinary surge” in applications by Vietnamese for political asylum in Australia in the second half of 2023.

He said that refugee applications tend to increase after political upheavals or government crackdowns on rights activists, but described last year as “very politically stable” in Vietnam. There were no mass demonstrations and most of the arrests were only of prominent activists and outspoken individuals on social media.

Instead, Minh posited, last year’s surge was likely the result of “large-scale fraudulent activities” in Vietnam, including individuals and companies providing false information about work opportunities for foreigners in Australia in order to sell them forged documents and useless services.

He cited an advertisement from one company claiming that applicants could take advantage of a program in Australia that would allow them to “take agricultural jobs without any expertise or English skills.”

After arriving in Australia only to learn that they would be unable to work or pay off their debts, most feel that they have no other choice but to double down, with applying for political asylum as their only option to stay in the country.

Supporting legitimate claims

Immigration attorney Kate Hoang, the former president of Australia’s Vietnamese community, stressed that “not all asylum applicants [from Vietnam] are those who want to extend their stay.”

Many, she said, were targeted by Vietnam’s government for speaking out about social injustices and were lucky just to have been able to travel to Australia to seek asylum at all.

Hoang urged the Australian government to make changes to the way it processes asylum visas to prevent those without legitimate claims from exploiting the system.

Meanwhile, Hung’s future remains uncertain as he awaits the ruling on his asylum application, and he has come to regret his journey to the southern continent.

“I paid a huge amount of money to come here, so I now have no choice but to work hard to pay off my debts, and I’ll probably just have to return home with nothing to show for it,” he said. “If I could make the decision again, I would never have gone.” 

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By RFA Vietnamese.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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