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UN Warns Vietnamese Refugee Deal is at Risk - 2002-02-25


The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is warning an agreement on repatriating 1,000 Vietnamese refugees from Cambodia is in jeopardy. Part of the problem is a demand that the refugees go home by April 30.

Just a month after it was drafted, an agreement to help Vietnamese hill-tribe members return home is under threat. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees drafted the deal with Vietnam and Cambodia.

The UNHCR now fears Vietnam and Cambodia's demand that the repatriation be completed by April 30 undermines the voluntary program.

The agreement was made after long talks to persuade the Cambodian and Vietnam governments to allow the UNHCR to monitor the repatriation program.

The refugees, members of the ethnic Montagnard tribe from Vietnam's central highlands, fled to Cambodia last year after protests over land disputes and after the Vietnamese government imposed religious restrictions.

Under the initial agreement, Hanoi promised that the returnees' would be safe and that they would not face discrimination.

A group of 15 returned home last week. Since then there have been incidents at two refugee camps, in which Cambodian police are accused of using electric prods against the refugees. In addition, the Vietnamese government has denied the UNHCR access to the refugees' home villages.

A UNHCR spokesman in Geneva says officials have expressed concern over the situation.

Vietnam's Communist government reportedly is unhappy at the slow pace of the repatriation. Hanoi insists the refugees were tricked or coerced by outsiders to flee to Cambodia last year.

Many of the refugees have said they fear government punishment, because of their religious beliefs, if they go home. Many of the hill tribe people are Protestants.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has in the past reported on persecution of minorities in Vietnam. The group had earlier called for the UNHCR to keep the refugee camps in Cambodia open to accommodate others fleeing persecution in Vietnam.