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Viet Nam: Immigration Detention as Debtors Prison 

Many inmates of Thu Duc prison worked as labourers, securing reductions in their sentences. But some are still in detention over alleged unpaid debts [Chris Humphrey/Al Jazeera]
Many inmates of Thu Duc prison worked as labourers, securing reductions in their sentences. But some are still in detention over alleged unpaid debts [Chris Humphrey/Al Jazeera]

There is little information available about Viet Nam’s immigration detention practices though people on online chat rooms and social media platforms have an occasion expressed dismay at the country’s “harsh” treatment of overstayers. There have also been reports about periodic crackdowns on irregular Chinese migrants, who are detained, fined, and then deported back to China, as well as of harassment and extortion by Vietnamese border guards of Chinese migrants.

Although the country’s Law on Foreigners does not appear to provide provisions on immigration detention, the country adopted a decree in 2020 that regulates the “stay”—a euphemism for “detention”—of people in deportation proceedings at “accommodation” facilities. According to Decree 65/2020/ND-CP, it is intended to “provide guidelines for the management of and regimes … for persons who are subject to the expulsion sentence, foreigners who face administrative penalty of deportation, and foreigners who have completely served  imprisonment sentences at accommodation establishments of the Ministry of Public Security pending the completion of exit procedures (hereinafter referred to as persons in stay).”

In early 2023, Al Jazeera reported that this decree is often used to hold foreigners in indefinite detention when they are unable to pay fines related to administrative procedures or criminal cases. While the law stipulates procedures for resolving cases when a foreigner is unable to pay their fine, according to Al Jazeera in reality the law has created “a legal black hole that is hard to escape without the settlement of the alleged debt or the assistance of a foreign embassy.”  

Al Jazeera cited the case of Tye Soon Hin, a 42-year-old Malaysian, who “was jailed for 12 years alongside two of his fellow citizens for using fake credit cards to steal money in 2014.  Since completing their sentences more than three years ago — also with a reduction —  they have been held in the detention centre owing a combined sum of $60,000.  One of the trio, Teh Chee Wan, can afford to repay the money he owes but has been told he cannot be released until all three, who were tried together, have settled their debts.”

A key facility used for the detention of foreigners in these situations is Trại Giam Long Hòa (or Long Hoa Prison), which according to Al Jazeera is a complex located outside Ho Chi Minh city that “also includes prison and detention facilities for Vietnamese juvenile offenders and sex workers.” A former detainee told Al Jazeera that at least 16 foreign detainees were “being held long-term at the detention centre, which he says could hold as many as 100 people. Among the inmates are nationals from Malaysia, Cambodia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Korea, Nigeria, Taiwan, The Philippines, Hong Kong and a Bulgarian dual national. All are being detained until they can repay court fees and fines as well as provide compensation to victims they are deemed to owe as a result of their crimes.”

Al Jazeera reported that they had spoken “to seven other detainees in the detention centre, all of whom said they believe they will never be released due to difficulties in arranging payment of their alleged debts. One man from the Netherlands has been in the centre since it first opened in 2017.”

To date, human rights monitoring bodies have not expressed concerns regarding migration-related detention practices in Viet Nam. However, there appears to be growing concern about the status and treatment of trafficking victims, asylum seekers, and stateless persons.  

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in Concluding Observations about Viet Nam issued in December 2023, stated: “While the Committee welcomes the measures taken and planned to combat statelessness and to address the needs of migrants, it regrets the lack of information on measures in relation to refugees, asylum-seekers, children of returned migrant women with foreign nationalities and internally displaced persons, including the Christian Hmong people who fled from the northern provinces to the Central Highlands.”

Arbitrary detention Immigration detention Indefinite Detention Trafficking Viet Nam