On January 21, 2002, the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) signed an agreement with Vietnam and Cambodia to repatriate from the Western Highland Montagnard who have taken refugee in Cambodia since early 2001. Orders from the UN dictated that the refugees should be repatriated safely and voluntarily.

The UN Refugee Commission, because of its inexperience in dealing with the Communist apparatus, allowed generalities and omissions to exist in this agreement which the latter has fully taken advantages of. The Communist Vietnam’s intentional misinterpretations of the agreements make it difficult to realize the agreement’s original intentions.

The UN Refugee Commission omitted to clarify the following:

1. There was no clear official designation of these refugees as being political refugees. Only political refugees would fall under the jurisdiction and protection of the UN. Vietnam instead took the initiative to designate these refugees as “illegal refugees”, an ambiguous term which is not recognized by any international or national refugee commissions.

2.The agreement did not clearly stress that the repatriation is only to be done on a voluntary basis.

3. Not included were terms which would have allowed UN Refugee Inspectors complete access and privileges to visit and interview repatriated refugees. Hanoi has thus allowed a one-time only visit by the UN inspectors, and that visit was limited to interviewing Vietnamese local officials and a few pre-chosen families.

4. The agreement set a meeting in early May between all sides to review the interim progress and reactions. However, Hanoi and Cambodia have pushed to complete all repatriation by the rainy season, which would be in April and which would pre-empt any attempt to have an interim review of the process.

After the U.S. and other Refugee commissions criticized the UN High Commission on Refugees, this organization has protested with Hanoi to little avail and much embarrassment to itself. Since March, Vietnam and Cambodia have secretly brought back 160 refugees (saying that they were voluntary). They forcibly sent 400 Montagnard family members of escaped refugees to Cambodia to entice back another 33.

Vietnam and Cambodia clearly have little respect for the UN High Commission on Refugees and have taken multiple underhanded maneuvers to accomplish whatever they feel necessary. The citizens of Vietnam, lowlanders as well as highlanders, need to take up the fight for justice. We need to speak out:

The communist government has oppressed and violated the rights of the Montagnard minorities, resulting in the present refugee crisis. These displaced people are legitimate refugees, people to whom the UN feels obligated to extend its protection. As such, Vietnamese people should not condone the government’s usage of such nonsensible terms as “illegal refugees”.

We ask that the UN High Commission on Refugees clarify this issue with Hanoi to protect the refugees under their mandates.

− Repatriation must be fully voluntary. The refugees must be respected and unharmed; they should not be separated or singled out for different treatments, as mandated by the UN High Commission on Refugees.

− Even if all refugees are repatriated, the issue is not fully resolved unless Hanoi rids itself of its “one culture” policy. The same policy was used by the old Soviet Union to justify its oppression of Russian ethnic minorities. The people of Vietnam demand that Hanoi implement a progressive policy based on multi-ethic, democratic, and cooperative principles. Hanoi should meet with the various opposition groups to discuss the list of grievances and come to an understanding that would promote the well-being of our many ethnic minorities.

Failing this, it is inevitable that the Highlands will be the site of more unrest and dissatisfaction. Vietnam’s neighboring states can expect more refugees, and the UN High Commission on Refugees will encounter more difficulty in further discussions with the slippery Hanoi.


Founder of The Non Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam

Laureate of The Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award

Laureate of The Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award

Dr Nguyen Dan Que

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