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Vietnamese beginning to flee by boat once again

HANOI — Nearly 40 years after hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled the country’s Communist regime by boat, a growing number are taking to the water again.

This year alone, 460 Vietnamese men, women, and children have arrived on Australian shores — more than in the last five years combined. The unexpected increase is drawing fresh scrutiny of Hanoi’s deteriorating human rights record, though Vietnam’s flagging economy may also explain why migrants have been making the risky journey.

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The latest boat carrying Vietnamese cruised into Australia’s Christmas Island one morning last month, according to witnesses on the shore. The hull number showed it was a fishing vessel registered in Kien Giang, a southern Vietnamese province more than 1,400 miles from Christmas Island, which is much closer to Indonesia than it is to the Australian mainland.

Many Vietnamese who have reached Australia have been held incommunicado. The government does not release details about their religion and place of origin within Vietnam, both of which might hint at why they are seeking asylum.

Some Vietnamese reach Australia via Indonesia, following the same route that the far more numerous asylum seekers from South Asia and the Middle East have blazed for more than a decade. Others set sail from Vietnam itself, a far longer and riskier journey.

In separate statements, the Australian and Vietnamese governments said the overwhelming majority or all of the arrivals were economic migrants, which would make them ineligible for asylum. Several Vietnamese activists in Australia and lawyers who have represented asylum-seekers from the country dispute that categorization or raised questions over the process Australia uses.

Those activists say that neither Australia nor Vietnam wants the refugees.

‘‘Vietnam’s attitude is that, ‘These are people who will never be our friends, so why should we take them back?’ ’’ said Trung Doan, former head of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, a diaspora group.

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