Unlucky country for some

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am

Before being led away in handcuffs and betrayed by his adopted nation, Tony Tran could have been forgiven for thinking the so-called lucky country had done him a good turn.

The Vietnamese refugee whose parents fled to the United States was living the Australian dream: he had a job, owned a home and his new wife had just given birth to their first child.

Then came the intervention of officials from an immigration department notorious for enforcing hardline policies and synonymous with scandal.

Locked up indefinitely, Mr Tran had seen the last of his wife who - threatened with the same fate - fled home to South Korea.

She was accompanied by her Australian-born toddler, Hai Tran, after immigration officials allegedly sanctioned a change in his legally registered name to procure a South Korean passport.

The same department later put the boy into foster care before trying unsuccessfully to deport him - effectively as an orphan - back to Seoul.

Behind the razor wire of an Outback detention centre, Mr Tran was attacked and stabbed by another inmate. Yet when - after 51/2 years - he was finally released, officials admitted what he had been telling them all along; that they had no reason to lock him up in the first place.

Mr Tran is now reunited with the son whose earliest years he missed, but their future remains agonisingly uncertain.

Immigration chiefs have not only refused to apologise, they still won't issue visas that will allow the father and son to finally call Australia home. 'They remain in complete limbo,' says refugee advocate David Manne.

'Tony remains at risk of even being removed from Australia despite the fact that he is effectively stateless. He has no citizenship rights in any other country.

'He has been in Australia for 14 years, his son was born here, calls Australia home and has an Australian accent.'

Now living on charity in Melbourne, Mr Tran's heartbreaking case is the latest in a series of scandals to embroil the Australian immigration service.

The 35-year-old was only released after a 2005 inquiry prompted by the illegal detention of two Australian women, Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon, and the latter's illegal deportation.

Mr Tran is part-Chinese. His father's family came from Guangdong province. His parents and other family members were among thousands who fled to the US from Vietnam. Most still live there today, but Tony left in 1992, hoping to build a new life Down Under.

He soon applied for permanent residence after marrying his first wife - an Australian citizen - although their subsequent divorce complicated the residency process. But Tony continued to build a life in Brisbane, marrying his second wife - from South Korea - before she gave birth to their son, Hai.

But in 1999, while making inquiries at the immigration service about getting a spouse visa for his new wife, Tony was carted off to Arthur Gorrie Correctional Facility, a prison that also houses immigration detainees.

'On the day, I attended the immigration department as I said I would and I was handcuffed and taken to Arthur Gorrie,' he recalls.

'I didn't expect to be locked up so I did not say goodbye to my wife and child.'

Mr Tran's horror story was just beginning. Only after his wife fled to South Korea with his son was he told the news by an immigration official. 'I thought I'd lost them, I thought I'd never see my son again,' he said.

Two years later his wife briefly returned to Queensland and abandoned Hai, claiming she was unable to cope economically as a single mother. But rather than heed the advice of state welfare authorities who recommended father and son be reunited to live in the community, immigration officials put the four-year-old in foster care.

Mr Tran said their only contact was by phone. He wasn't allowed to meet Hai outside detention and says he had to threaten suicide to get permission to send his son a photo.

But, to add to his woes, there was physical danger, particularly from one inmate whom Tony warned authorities was mentally ill. 'The authorities did not do anything to help him or to protect the other detainees,' he says.

'I was attacked with what I was told was a piece of wood with a six -inch nail attached. I received head injuries and was taken to hospital.'

Meanwhile, immigration agents said Tony had shown little interest in his son, and the immigration service attempted to deport the lad as a 'Korean national'.

It is a nightmare Mr Tran struggles to recount. 'You can't really cope and I was under medication to help me cope,' he says. 'I never gave up on my son and got my energy by continuing to fight for my son. When everything is taken away from you and everything you have been taught turns out not to be right, you lose your sense of feeling.

'I do not want anyone to go through what I have been through.'

Mr Tran was only released and reunited with Hai after revelations that Australian Cornelia Rau had been held in immigration detention for 10 months.

The furore over her case forced the government to set up an inquiry headed by former federal police chief Mick Palmer, who also looked into why another Australian - Vivian Alvarez Solon - had been illegally deported to the Philippines.

As the fallout continued, the immigration department handed more than 200 other cases to Mr Palmer - one of them being Tony Tran's.

He was finally released in June 2005. He walked free with a note from the immigration department acknowledging he had been wrongly detained.

Mr Manne, director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne, said the letter read like an 'alteration of a parking infringement notice'.

It transpires that more than 10 years earlier, Tony's own spouse visa application had been rejected, but immigration authorities never notified him in writing of the decision.

'Under Australian law, if you're not properly notified of a decision, it's unlawful for you to be detained,' Mr Manne said. 'It is undoubtedly the case that Tony and his son have taken their place alongside other terrible scandals involving the immigration department.

'There is clear-cut concrete evidence that the immigration system has perpetuated scandalous abuse and cruel indifference on innocent and often vulnerable people, and has profoundly damaged or crushed many.'

The Palmer inquiry exposed systemic failings in the immigration department and led to the departure of its head, Bill Farmer, and his two deputies.

Some critics believe the government's hardline stance on asylum seekers has since softened, but Mr Manne says its policies remain among the most hostile and restrictive in the western world.

'The fact remains that the High Court found there was a law on our statute books that allows for the indefinite detention of children,' he says.

After yesterday's Australian general election, Mr Manne says it is vital the new government reform immigration laws. For the past year, Mr Tran's legal team have tried to negotiate a settlement with the immigration department.

But lawyer David Shaw said there had been 'no enthusiasm' on the government side to engage in discussion. He has lodged a case in the Victorian Supreme Court asking for compensation and permanent residency for the father and his son.

Mr Tran, now studying to work as a radiologist, also wants an apology.

'He was forcibly separated from Hai and had to watch powerless as decisions about his son's life were being made by strangers,' Mr Manne said. 'He is really trying to put the pieces of his life back together and somehow recapture some of what he lost.'