Vietnamese Struggle for a Place in Poland

  • by Robert Stefanicki (warsaw)
  • Inter Press Service

In 1999 Thuan (not his real name) decided to leave for far away Poland.

A shady travel bureau in Hanoi promised to handle the trip for 4,000 dollars. The route led via Moscow. There the guide gathered passports from all participants, allegedly to stamp Polish visas. They have never seen their documents again.

Smuggled in, Thuan settled in Warsaw.

Vietnamese make the largest group of immigrants in Poland. Thuan joined a community of 60,000 then, that are now half that number due to a restrictive visa policy.

There are professors among them as well as farmers, but here almost all sell textiles or work in small restaurants.

Thuan sold socks and jeans on the street. A part of his earnings disappeared into the pockets of human smugglers, to cover the impossible-to-settle bill for his trip from Vietnam.

In 2008 Thuan was arrested in a police raid.

Transferred to the Lesznowola detention centre, south of Warsaw, he says he could not believe his eyes when he saw two Vietnamese officers enter the interrogation room. They were from the infamous A18 intelligence.

One of them greeted Thuan with a smile. The other said: 'We believe you are not among them, but you know some people who want to overthrow our government.'

In Warsaw Thuan had made friends with publishers of Dan Chim Viet, a magazine critical of the communist government in Vietnam.

'We want you to cooperate with us after you leave the arrest. Just tell us what you know. We could issue a new passport for you, so you would be able to see your family in Vietnam.'

Thuan signed to cooperate. He is back in Warsaw. The offer was hard to resist. Thuan’s fate rested in the hands of the communist security officers.

This was made possible under an April 2004 agreement on mutual extradition. The A18 officers come to Poland as an 'expert delegation' to 'establish the identity' of their paperless compatriots.

If the officers manage to establish Thuan’s identity, he would be deported. If not, he would spend one year in detention, then walk free.

The risk of abuse is obvious. 'When the officers find the interrogated person loyal and useful, they would never confirm his identity,' local activist Ton Van Anh told IPS. 'Only those who resist are being deported.'

Last year 227 were deported.

It was Poland that asked Vietnamese officials to interrogate detained immigrants.

'We have tried other ways,' spokeswomen for the Polish Border Guard, Capt. Justyna Szmidt-Grzech told IPS. 'Sending their documents to the Vietnamese embassy in Warsaw, or sending them straight to Vietnam. Each time the result was negative: no response or, less often, the answer was that the identity was not confirmed.'

'For now, the only proved way remains confirming the identity of a detained person through a personal contact, that is, interrogation of him or her by a Vietnamese official.'

This practice started in 2007. 'It is getting worse,' says Ton Van Anh. 'First they did it at the Warsaw Airport only, today they are allowed to question almost everywhere and everybody, including breast-feeding mothers.'

According to Ms. Ton and other human rights defenders, even the people who requested refugee status are being interrogated.

Contacting the security services of the country from which someone is fleeing while their refugee status procedure is pending is a violation of the Geneva Convention.

They have little chance of being accepted as a refugee. In the last ten years Vietnamese filled about 1,000 applications. Only two were approved.

Polish authorities assume that all those from Vietnam must be economic migrants, ignoring the fact that some of them may find themselves in danger when deported.

'The Vietnam government intensified its repression of activists and dissidents during 2010, and cracked down harshly on freedom of expression, association, and assembly,' Human Rights Watch said in its 2011 World Report.

Nowadays, in EU-member Poland, it is virtually impossible for a Vietnamese to legalize his or her stay. According to Ton Van Anh, only 13,000 — some 40 percent — of her countrymen live in Poland legally. Those who do, arrived years ago.

Like Ms. Ton herself. She moved with her parents in the early 1990s. Today the young woman helps Vietnamese immigrants deal with Polish authorities, works as a correspondent for Radio Free Asia, and does not hide her criticism of the regime in Hanoi.

In 2007 she went to attend a joint press conference by the visiting Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung and his Polish counterpart Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The Vietnamese PM recognized Ms. Van Anh and demanded she be removed from the room. Polish security officers dragged her out.

When her passport expired, the Vietnamese Embassy refused to renew it, admitting that 'the decision is taken on the basis of Ms. Ton Van Anh activity incompatible with the interests of the State, the people of Vietnam and friendly Polish-Vietnamese relations.'

She wanted to marry, but could not. Worse, her residence permit was about to expire. She was in danger of deportation.

But she had connections, priceless not only in Asia. Many influential Poles signed a petition in her defence. In February President Bronislaw Komorowski agreed to grant her Polish citizenship.

Ms. Ton feels relieved — and furious at the same time, knowing that Thuan and thousands of others have no chance of such a happy ending.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service