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U.S Retrenching on Protection of Montagnards

ICC Note; The Montagnard Foundation had this comment to what is happening: This could have serious consequences for returnees, in particular because the Vietnamese communist government has a history of diplomatic trickery when it comes to actual human rights practices

4/26/07 Vietnam For full story….(Refugees International) The U.S. State Department is planning to abandon a small but important program that protects Montagnard refugees from Vietnam from the threat of persecution for religious and other reasons. Only swift, determined Congressional opposition will stop the change.

The reduction of refugee protection was made in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in spite of a recent letter from six Members of Congress asserting that “any such decision would be contrary to continuing Congressional concern for the welfare of Montagnards, both inside and outside of Vietnam , as reflected in U.S. refugee law.” The State Department removed the extra layer of protection for Montagnards before responding to the letter.

Montagnards, an ethnic group in the Central Highlands of Vietnam , have been the target of harsh treatment for historical (Montagnards supported the U.S. during the Vietnam War), religious (many are Christian), ethnic and economic reasons. Several thousand Montagnard refugees have resettled in the U.S. , and small numbers of Montagnards continue to leave Vietnam , sneaking across the border to Cambodia , where they seek protection from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

UNHCR interviews the Montagnards in Phnom Penh to determine if they qualify for protection as refugees. Those granted refugee status become eligible for resettlement in the U.S. or other countries. For several years, the U.S. has given those who didn’t get refugee status from UNHCR a second interview and a second chance. In 2006, the U.S. interviewed 75 Montagnards who had been denied refugee status by UNHCR in Phnom Penh and granted refugee status to 33. The year before the U.S. granted refugee to 20 of 25 who had been denied refugee status by the UNHCR. Under the so-called Lautenberg Amendment, the U.S. applies more lenient standards than UNHCR to certain groups of concern, including Vietnamese Montagnards.

Starting on May 1, the State Department will end its policy of granting second chance interviews in Phnom Penh to Montagnards rejected by UNHCR. Instead, those Montagnards will be sent back to Vietnam and told to meet with State Department officials in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City .

Although the UNHCR, under new monitoring procedures in the Central Highlands, reports that Montagnards are well treated when they return, the State Department’s own human rights report for 2006, paints a more disturbing picture: “There were numerous reports the ethnic minorities seeking to cross into Cambodia were returned by Vietnamese police operation on both sides of the border, sometimes followed by beatings and detentions…”

The new policy weakens protections for Montagnards, undermines congressional intent, and possibly exposes Montagnards to new problems when forced home. At best they will face additional delay in seeking refugee status; at worst, they could face discrimination and harassment from Vietnamese authorities.

The State Department should delay the policy until Congress has time to explore the implications of the decision to close an important safety valve for Montagnards. Please write Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ask him to hold a hearing on the State Department’s weakened protection for Montagnards.