Australian Navy to hand 50 asylum seekers back to Vietnam
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Australian Navy to hand 50 asylum seekers back to Vietnam

An Australian Navy ship carrying up to 50 Vietnamese asylum seekers is hours away from a southern port city in Vietnam where it is expected to hand detainees over to the Communist government.

HMAS Choules is in waters off Vung Tau, south of Ho Chi Minh City.

The HMAS Choules, pictured off Manus Island in 2013, is understood to have travelled south of Ho Chi Minh City to return 50 Vietnamese asylum seekers.

The HMAS Choules, pictured off Manus Island in 2013, is understood to have travelled south of Ho Chi Minh City to return 50 Vietnamese asylum seekers.Credit:Kate Geraghty

The vessel is carrying asylum seekers intercepted by Customs and Navy vessels earlier this month, the West Australian newspaper reported on Friday.

A Defence source told Fairfax Media that HMAS Choules was headed to Vung Tau and would likely arrive late Friday or in the early hours of Saturday.

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Members of the Vietnamese community in Australia claim people returned to the country face persecution by the Communist government in Hanoi.

The Abbott government has made it policy not to comment on "on water matters" as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.

Fairfax Media has sought comment from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. It is the first major operation - at least publicly - on his watch since taking over from Scott Morrison in the cabinet reshuffle in December.

In a rare update in January, Mr Dutton revealed that 15 asylum boats containing 429 asylum seekers had been turned back since the government commenced Operation Sovereign Borders.

Last year, the government attempted to hand back 157 Tamil asylum seekers after keeping them detained at sea for a month aboard the Customs vessel Ocean Protector.

The Sri Lankan Tamils, who had taken to the sea on boats from a refugee camp in southern India, were not accepted back by the Indian government. They were eventually brought to Australia briefly before being transferred to Nauru.

HMAS Choules was sent to Manus Island in 2012 to provide offshore accommodation and support to Defence members and government officials. It has been put on standby to accept injured people during riots inside the Manus detention centre.

The West Australian reports HMAS Choules, has a daily running cost of $201,621, according 2012 Defence estimates. This means that a week-long voyage to return asylum seekers to Vietnam would cost at least $1.4 million – double if you include the return voyage.

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Heath Aston is the environment, energy and corporate correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age