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Orwell's Animal Farm:   
Status of the returnee Montagnard

Refugees, under the definition of 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is a term applied to persons who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it". The 1951 Convention has been criticized as an instrument to recognize those who could jump over now fallen Berlin Wall. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, UNHCR apparently believes that the definition of refugees has changed and the Orwell's Animal Farms have been closed down.

Following the crackdown of the protest by the Montagnards in February 2001, hundreds of them were forced to flee their villages in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam and cross over to Mondulkiri and Ratnakiri districts of neighboring Cambodia. UNHCR was later given permission and it opened two relief camps, one each in Mondulkiri and Ratnakiri districts sheltering about 400 refugees. By January 2002, when the Tripartite Agreement between Viet Nam, Cambodia and the UNHCR was signed, at least 1000 refugees fled to Cambodia. However, not many of the refugees were repatriated to Viet Nam, as the United States had accepted 932 refugees for resettlement in the US starting in June 2002. This slowed down flow of refugees to Cambodia and UNHCR closed down the two refugee camps. However, flow of refugees, though intermittent, continued despite closure of the UNCHR camps.

By January 2005, some 750 Montagnards took shelter under UNHCR's care in Cambodia. Cambodian authorities not only denied permanent asylum to the refugees but also threatened to forcibly deport them. It was against this backdrop that Vietnam, Cambodia and UNHCR met in Hanoi on 24-25 January 2005 for the first time in three years to discuss a new agreement. Hanoi presented a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) asserting that it would not prosecute the returnee Montagnards. UNHCR presented a counter proposal, which eventually became the final MoU that was agreed upon and signed by the parties. Since then, according to UNHCR, 190 Montagnards have returned to Vietnam - 96 voluntary returnees and 94 rejected asylum seekers. While 605 have been resettled in the US, 204 remain in Cambodia.

Between March 2005 and 28 April 2006, representatives of the UNHCR, including its Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, undertook 12 visits to the Central Highlands and met the returnees from Cambodia. UNHCR reported that only a few of these visits have taken place without the presence of the Vietnamese government officials. Yet it had no problem to conclude that it "has no serious concerns about the conditions of the returnees".

Human Rights Watch in its report, No Sanctuary: Ongoing Threats to Indigenous Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands of June 2006 alleged that Vietnamese authorities have been detaining, interrogating and even torturing Montagnard asylum seekers who returned to Viet Nam from Cambodia. The report urged United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to review its participation in the return exercise, called its monitoring 'flawed' and accused the UNHCR of making public statements appeared to be 'calculated' to gain greater access to Viet Nam's Central Highlands, the Montagnards' place of origin.

Some of the key findings of the HRW's report, No Sanctuary: Ongoing Threats to Indigenous Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands, are as follows: -

Vietnamese officials continue to violate the right to religious freedom in some parts of the Central Highlands. Officials continue to pressure ethnic minority Christians who belong to independent house churches to sign pledges renouncing their religion or to pledge loyalty to the officially recognized ECVN. Authorities also restrict peoples' movement between villages for the purpose of religious undertakings that are not authorized by the government. In some areas large Christian gatherings continue to be banned, unless they are presided over by officially recognized pastors;

Vietnamese government continues to criminalize peaceful dissent, unsanctioned religious activity, and efforts to seek sanctuary in Cambodia by arresting and imprisoning Central Highlanders for their religious or political beliefs. More than 250 highlanders have been imprisoned since 2001. The arrests are ongoing: during 2005, at least eighty people were arrested and 142 people-some of whom had been in pre-trial detention for as much as a year-were sentenced to prison terms of up to seventeen years;

Vietnam has also violated a January 2005 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) by detaining, interrogating, and severely mistreating some Central Highlanders who had fled to refugee camps in Cambodia and then returned to Vietnam, either voluntarily or under duress;

In April, May, and December 2005 Human Rights Watch received credible reports, including first-hand accounts of officials detaining and beating Central Highlanders who had returned to Vietnam from UNHCR sites in Cambodia. Immediately upon return to Vietnam some returnee refugees were detained in dark cells in the provincial prison in Pleiku for five to seven days. They were interrogated every day about why they had left Vietnam and pressured to renounce their religion. They were beaten and tortured during interrogation;

The value of monitoring missions remains questionable because the Vietnamese government still manages to maintain control over what monitors see and hear-if not by the obvious presence of official escorts, then by the intimidation of villagers out of direct sight and hearing of the monitors;

Many of the visits by UNHCR and other international delegations have been conducted in the presence of government officials and uniformed and undercover police officers;

Many Central Highlanders remain fearful of speaking frankly with visitors about abuses, only feeling safe enough to do so when they have left Vietnam and are safely in another country; and

UNHCR's choice to make public statements praising Vietnam's treatment of returnees appears to be calculated to encourage the Vietnamese government to grant it greater access.

UNHCR rejected HRW's accusations dubbing its report as unbalanced. According to the UN refugee body, HRW's allegations do not tally with UNHCR's first-hand experience of the Montagnard caseload in Cambodia, or with its 12 monitoring missions to visit returnees in the Central Highlands. UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond claimed that HRW's  report also do not tally with the visits of foreign diplomats, regional bodies and other respected human rights advocates and that it draws very generalized conclusions from essentially the accounts of five people whose stories cannot be verified by any objective means.

UNHCR's statement raises more questions than it answers.

Which statements of foreign diplomats, regional bodies and other respected human rights advocates UNHCR have been referring to? UNHCR's spokesman does not even know that there is no regional human rights instrument or regional human rights body in Asia. AITPN at least has not seen any statement or report by any regional human rights advocate of repute certifying that returnee Montagnard refugees have not been subjected to the human rights violations as reported by the Human Rights Watch.

When UNHCR has been denied free and unfettered access to the returnee refugees before, during and after repatriation under the MoU of January 2005, can repatriation be termed as voluntary?

Can the MoU which sets one-month deadline for refugees to decide to resettle in a third country or return to the country from where they fled be considered as ensuring voluntary repatriation?

Does UNHCR believe that the returnee Montagnard refugees who escaped from atrocities in Vietnam; mal-treated by the Cambodian authorities and abandoned by UNHCR tand presently live under the close watch of the Vietnamese officials after their return will actually have the courage to narrate their ordeal freely to UNHCR officials who are often accompanied by the government officials?

UNHCR has chosen unidentified foreign diplomats, regional bodies and other respected human rights advocates to defend itself. George Orwell's Animal Farm could still serve as a guidebook for dealing with refuees in Indo-China.

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