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Vietnam: UNHCR  Breaks Refugee Agreement - 2002-03-25


Vietnam's government has lashed out at the United Nations refugee agency, accusing it of breaking its agreement to help return hilltribe people who fled to Cambodia last year. The UN withdrew from the repatriations last week amid reports some people were being forcibly returned.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Monday the United Nations was breaking its word by refusing to help return about 1,000 Vietnamese asylum seekers from camps in Cambodia. Phan Thuy Thanh called the U.N.'s decision last week irresponsible, saying conditions in the border camps are dire, and some people have died.

The comments follow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' decision Friday to withdraw from an agreement with Cambodia and Vietnam on the repatriation of the Vietnamese hill tribe asylum seekers because of violations by both sides.

The UNHCR has raised concerns that Vietnamese officials have been threatening and beating up asylum seekers, who say they fled political repression in Vietnam. Hanoi has denied that anyone has been returned involuntarily.

Up to 1,000 ethnic minority hill tribe people fled from Vietnam's troubled central highlands region into Cambodia last year following a week of anti-government riots. Hanoi has accused exile groups in the United States of instigating the exodus to embarrass the communist government.

What happens next is unclear. The human rights group Amnesty International says it fears the asylum seekers may now be rounded up and forced back, where they may face persecution for leaving. The U.N. has been pressuring Cambodia not to cooperate in any deportations. However, Hanoi continues to insist the majority of those in the camps want to come home, citing the voluntary return of more than 130 in the last month.

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