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Vietnam: Information on the treatment of returnees

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 1 September 1997
Citation / Document Symbol VNM27680.EX
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Vietnam: Information on the treatment of returnees, 1 September 1997, VNM27680.EX, available at: [accessed 20 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


This Extended Response to Information Request is divided into three sections for ease of reference by the reader. Section one provides a summary of the Comprehensive Plan of Action, the programme designed by the UNHCR in 1989 to deal with Vietnamese asylum seekers. Section two addresses the current treatment of returnees in Vietnam and the role of the UNHCR in assisting and monitoring the returnees after their repatriation. Section three is a brief overview of the current human rights situation in Vietnam.

1. The Comprehensive Plan of Action

        On 14 June 1989 Canada and over 70 other countries attended the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees and adopted the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) (UNHCR 1996, 7; Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee Ottawa May 1994; Freeman 30 Nov. 1994, 2).  The CPA introduced a new method for dealing with Vietnamese asylum seekers (ibid.). According to the UNHCR, the main objectives of the CPA were:

to reduce clandestine departures through official measures against those organizing clandestine departures and through mass information campaigns; and to promote increased opportunities for legal migration under the Orderly Departure Programme;

to provide first asylum to all asylum seekers until their status had been established and a durable solution found;

to determine the refugee status of all asylum seekers in accordance with international standards and criteria;

to resettle those found to be genuine refugees in third countries as well as all Vietnamese who were in first asylum camps prior to the regional cutoff dates;

to repatriate those found not to be refugees and reintegrate them in their home countries (1996, 7).

The CPA stipulates that the screening of asylum seekers be carried out by local government authorities in countries of first asylum in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol (UNHCR 1996, 9; Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee Ottawa May 1994). A 1996 UNHCR report states that first asylum countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong and the  Philippines, "all adopted procedures which gave the asylum seekers access to UNHCR, a full interview, the services of an interpreter and the possibility of review by a second authority. Additionally, in Hong Kong, applicants had access to the courts for judicial review" (10). Furthermore, the

UNHCR took an active role in assisting the governments to implement the procedures and in training local officials in the application of refugee law, and deployed a large number of experienced international lawyers …. in every country, UNHCR not only monitored all or a significant proportion of the government's interviews, but also itself interviewed all applicants, or at least all those who had been rejected in the first instance (ibid.).

The role of the UNHCR in the camps and in the monitoring process, as well as the CPA itself, have been criticised by human rights organizations and by a number of expatriate Vietnamese advocacy organizations (Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee Ottawa May 1994; Freedom Review Jan.-Feb. 1995, 74-77; BPSOS 8 June 1996; USA Today 19 May 1997; The Boston Globe 3 Aug. 1996; HRW Mar. 1997,  14-17). Some reports maintain that the screening process in countries of first asylum is seriously flawed, citing contributing factors as: "inexperienced screening officers, corruption, lack of professional legal assistance, incompetent interpreters" (Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee Ottawa May 1994) and "inadequate notification of the right to appeal" (HRW Mar. 1997, 14; see also Freedom Review Jan.-Feb. 1995, 75-77; The Boston Globe 3 Aug. 1996; USA Today 19 May 1997). According to two sources, flaws in the screening process have resulted in many legitimate refugees being forced to repatriate (Freedom Review Jan.-Feb. 1995, 75; Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee Ottawa May 1994). A Human Rights Watch report raises the possibility that weaknesses in screening procedures may have created situations whereby individuals with legitimate refugee claims are denied refugee status and returned to Vietnam (Mar. 1997, 14). The attachment dated 5 June 1997 from the South China Morning Post reports that Hong Kong government screeners "admitted they could have made mistakes when assessing the cases of 31 ex-servicemen who fought for the US during the Vietnam War." These claimants, originally screened out by Hong Kong authorities, were reclassified as refugees by the UNHCR in June 1997 and are to be resettled in the United States (ibid.).

The UNHCR has acknowledged that imperfections in the screening process exist but maintains that it does not believe that any screened out individuals had a "well founded fear of persecution" (UNHCR 1996, 11).

Individuals found not to be genuine refugees under the CPA screening procedures are to be repatriated to Vietnam (UNHCR 1996, 12). The UNHCR encouraged those individuals that had been screened out to submit themselves to voluntary repatriation and, according to reports, most returnees did return to Vietnam voluntarily (ibid.; Refugees 1996, 26; IPS 9 May 1997). According to the CPA, "if after a passage of reasonable time, it becomes clear that voluntary repatriation is not making sufficient progress…, alternatives recognised as being acceptable under international practices would be examined" (UNHCR 1996, 12). Under "Orderly Return Programmes" individuals who refuse to return voluntarily are deported to Vietnam (ibid.; see also Refugees 1996,  26-27).

By April 1997, 109,199 Vietnamese had returned to Vietnam from camps in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and Thailand (IPS 9 May 1997; Xinhua 26 Apr. 1997; UNHCR May 1997). According to the UNHCR, 94,241 of the returnees did so voluntarily; the remainder were forced to return (IPS 9 May 1997). The CPA programme officially ended on 1 July 1996 (UNHCR May 1997). Due to the numbers of Vietnamese asylum seekers remaining in Hong Kong, the UNHCR extended its mandate there by one year to 30 June 1997 (ibid. 18 Aug. 1997; VNA 1 May 1997). During an interview with the DIRB on 18 August 1997 a UNHCR representative stated that there remain approximately 200 Vietnamese in Hong Kong who have been cleared for repatriation. These individuals include pregnant women, their families and people who cannot presently leave the camps for medical or other valid reasons (ibid.). There are an additional 1,653 Vietnamese in the Philippines who were legally permitted to remain there until 30 June 1997, one year after the formal end of the CPA in ASEAN countries (UNHCR 26 Aug. 1997; ibid. May 1997).

Please see pages eleven to thirteen of the March 1997 Human Rights Watch attachment for information on methods employed to encourage asylum seekers to return voluntarily to Vietnam.

2. Treatment of Returnees

        A memorandum of understanding signed between the government of Vietnam and the UNHCR in December 1988 guaranteed the UNHCR full access to all returnees (UNHCR 1996, 22; see also HRW Mar. 1997, 14). The memorandum also gave assurances that returnees would be "treated humanely … and that they would not be subjected to intimidation or harassment" (UNHCR 1996, 22). Returnees were to be given a complete pardon for their illegal departure from the country although they would be subject to prosecution for criminal offences committed before they left Vietnam (ibid.; Refugees 1996, 27; IPS 9 May 1997; DPA 23 Mar. 1997).

As of August 1997 the UNHCR employed eight international monitors in Vietnam (UNHCR 18 Aug. 1997). Of these, five are in the northern areas of the country and three are based in Ho Chi Minh City in the south (ibid.). These monitors conduct "individual case monitoring of Vietnamese returnees. … Proficient in Vietnamese, the monitors' role is to assist in the smooth integration of returnees, help in the distribution of financial assistance, and investigate allegations of persecution, harassment, or mistreatment by Vietnamese authorities" (HRW Mar. 1997, 15; UNHCR 1996, 22; IPS 9 May 1997).

According to the UNHCR,

UNHCR monitoring officers enjoy free access to all returnees. On many but not all monitoring visits, UNHCR staff may be accompanied by officials from the local Departments of Labour and Social Affairs who are in charge of reintegration of returnees. The presence of these officials often allows many questions relating to assistance, vocational training, and other matters to be resolved on the spot. Whenever necessary, monitoring officers can discretely make special arrangements to ensure strict confidentiality of information returnees may wish to communicate in private. In addition, many returnee-visitors to UNHCR offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are being interviewed by the monitoring staff without any government officials present (26 Aug. 1997).

The UNHCR has been monitoring returnees since March 1989 and, according to a UNHCR representative in Hanoi, monitors will remain in Vietnam until at least one year after the repatriation of the last returnee (UNHCR 18 Aug. 1997). During a telephone interview with the DIRB on 18 August 1997, the UNHCR representative in Hanoi stated that there will likely be a gradual reduction of UNHCR monitors in Vietnam beginning in the first quarter of 1998 for Ho Chi Minh City and continuing through the year.

Each returnee is given UNHCR cash grants ranging from US$240-440 (UNHCR 1996, 21; Migration News 10 Oct. 1995; Japan Economic Newswire 28 May 1997). Individuals returning to Vietnam from Hong Kong and the Philippines in 1997 will, if eligible1, continue to receive UNHCR financial assistance upon repatriation (UNHCR 18 Aug. 1997). A UNHCR representative stated that it remains uncertain whether funding will be available to assist returnees repatriating in 1998 (ibid.).

The UNHCR also established business training courses and supplied hundreds of micro-loans for returnees prepared to undertake small- and medium-scale business ventures (Migration News 10 Oct. 1995; VNA 1 May 1997; UNHCR 1996, 21). According to an IPS report, in 1996 the UNHCR spent US$2.8 million on reintegration projects and has allocated US$5.3 million for similar projects in 1997 (9 May 1997; see also Xinhua 26 Apr. 1997). The European Union has spent over US$120 million in assistance programmes for Vietnamese returnees since 1991 (IPS 9 May 1997; AsiaTimes 13 Dec. 1996; VNA 1 May 1997; UNHCR 18 Aug. 1997). In August 1996 the European Commission designated US$20 million for a three-year job training and infrastructure programme (Vietconnections News 29 Aug. 1996; see also Asia 1997 Yearbook 1997, 222). The European Union's financial assistance is geared toward the health care sector, vocational training and social support and is intended to assist returnees and the Vietnamese population at large (Vietconnections News 29 Aug. 1996). According to a UNHCR representative, the European Union assistance programme will continue until 1999 (18 Aug. 1997; see also Asia 1997 Yearbook 1997, 222).

UNHCR officials have repeatedly stated that returnees face no persecution, discrimination or harassment from Vietnamese authorities for leaving Vietnam illegally (UNHCR 18 Aug. 1997; ibid. 1996, 22; ibid. May 1997; IPS 9 May 1997; Migration News 10 Oct. 1995; The Boston Globe 3 Aug. 1996; Refugees 1996, 27). However, the 1996 UNHCR special report entitled The Indo-Chinese Exodus and the CPA, while clearly noting that returnees may be prosecuted for criminal offences committed before they left Vietnam, elaborates as follows:

88 returnees have reportedly been arrested and detained on criminal charges since 1989. UNHCR monitors systematically visit family members and gather information on the conditions of arrest, detention and trial. UNHCR has pressed the authorities to provide staff with more information on arrests of returnees and better access to them after arrest (22). 

A UNHCR representative in Hanoi stated in an August 1997 interview that UNHCR monitors have recently noticed an increase in the number of returnees arrested upon their return to Vietnam (18 Aug. 1997). According to the representative, many of the individuals detained committed offences before leaving Vietnam while others are escaped convicts (ibid.). The representative noted that these individuals have resisted repatriation the longest which is why, in the final days of the repatriation programme, there has been an increase in returnees arrested (ibid.). The UNHCR has access to detained returnees and monitors have visited approximately 50 returnees in detention facilities since January 1996 (ibid.).

A March 1997 Human Rights Watch report entitled Hong Kong: Abuses Against Vietnamese Asylum Seekers in the Final Days of the Comprehensive Plan of Action discusses the monitoring of Vietnamese returnees. This report details several cases where returnees were arrested or detained for belonging to New Democracy, an anti-Communist political group that was active in Hong Kong's detention camps (HRW Mar. 1997, 15).

The attached 23 March 1997 Deutsche Presse-Agentur article reports on the case of a returnee arrested upon his return to Vietnam and charged with "anti-government activities"; the returnee had been an active member of anti-Communist and anti-forced repatriation groups while in a Hong Kong detention camp.

According to a Hanoi-based UNHCR representative,

UNHCR is not aware of any arrest or detention of returnees for their activities (political, religious, etc.) in the camps outside Vietnam. It is, however, known to UNHCR that some camp activists may sometimes be subjected to questioning by government officials at the transit centres on return to Vietnam. In UNHCR's view, this does not rise to the level of persecution. This government questioning is aimed at ensuring that the returnees obey ... Vietnamese law and do not involve [themselves] in similar political activities in Vietnam. Normally, the questioning ends soon after the individuals' return to their homes. Close monitoring by UNHCR of this particular group of returnees is being ensured by a sophisticated "priority referral system" (26 Aug. 1997).

Human Rights Watch reports that many returnees have been unable to find housing upon their return and others have been harassed about their religious activities or military backgrounds (Mar. 1997, 15-16). The Human Rights Watch report recommends that: 

the UNHCR ... explore new ways to make its protection role more effective through cooperative work with independent organizations who are not funded by the UNHCR. To address the concerns among NGOs and Vietnamese asylum seekers regarding the effectiveness of the UNHCR's protection of returnees, the agency should establish an independent evaluation team to monitor the activity and performance of its monitors in Vietnam (4; see also IPS 9 May 1997).

In the same report Human Rights Watch identifies vulnerable groups among returnees in Hong Kong camps. According to Human Rights Watch, every returnee must participate in debriefing sessions with Vietnamese officials upon their return to Vietnam (Mar. 1997, 19).

During such interrogations, officials have shown particular interest in asylum seekers who have worked with foreigners or foreign voluntary agencies, acted in some leadership capacity within the camp communities, or engaged in anti-Communist or other political activities. Such interest indicates a certain degree of danger for those asylum seekers who have been involved in these types of activities (Mar. 1997, 19).

Human Rights Watch also identifies "people who are known to have been interviewed [in asylum camps] by the Hong Kong Security Branch or the Defence Liaison Office of the United States Consulate" as being at particular risk if returned to Vietnam (ibid.).

Pages fourteen to seventeen of the attached March 1997 Human Rights Watch report detail difficulties encountered by returnees in Vietnam and pages nineteen to twenty discuss vulnerable groups among returnees.

Advocates for the rights of returnees have voiced concern over the effectiveness of the UNHCR's monitoring and protection role (BPSOS 8 June 1996; Freeman 30 Nov. 1994; Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee Ottawa May 1994; USA Today 19 May 1997; HRW Mar. 1997, 15). According to a USA Today article, some advocacy groups "vigorously dispute the UNHCR's sunny assessment" of the conditions that returnees face in Vietnam (19 May 1997). However, USA Today cites Vietnamese aid groups as admitting that "few returnees are subjected to open persecution .... [although] many are dogged by low-level bureaucratic harassment—delays in getting household registration and access to schools, extra fees, needless red tape, added scrutiny from local officials" (ibid.).

For further information on the treatment of returnees in Vietnam please see Responses to Information Requests VNM19431.E of 30 January 1995 and VNM26592.E of 11 April 1997.

Additional information on this subject is not currently available to the DIRB. However, please see the following general information on the human rights situation in Vietnam.

3. Current Human Rights Conditions in Vietnam

        In May 1997 the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning human rights violations in Vietnam and calling on Vietnamese authorities to release all political and religious prisoners (European Parliament 15 May 1997; AFP 18 May 1997; Reuters 18 May 1997). The European Parliament resolution accused the Vietnamese government of continuing to "restrict civil liberties and violate human rights by significantly restricting freedom of speech, the media, assembly, association and religion" (ibid.). The Vietnamese government reacted angrily to the Parliament's resolution, maintaining that the resolution gives an inaccurate portrayal of the real situation in Vietnam (ibid.; AFP 18 May 1997).

Similarly, Country Reports 1996 describes the Vietnamese government's human rights record in 1996 as poor (1997, 798).

The government … significantly restricted freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, privacy, and religion. The Government arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens, including detention for peaceful expression of political and religious objections to government policies …. The Government continued its long-standing policy of not tolerating most types of public dissent and of prohibiting independent religious, political, and labor organizations (ibid.). 

In its 1997 annual report, Amnesty International stated that 54 prisoners of conscience and possible prisoners of conscience remained incarcerated in Vietnam throughout 1996 (1997, 334). In an April 1997 report Human Rights Watch "expressed alarm over a new wave of interrogations and threats directed against Vietnam's dissident intellectuals" (HRW 3 Apr. 1997). According to the executive director of Human Rights Watch,

there's little doubt that a fresh crackdown is brewing …. From the information available so far, it seems that government and party officials are attempting to subtly threaten and penalize prominent individuals and their families for nothing more than expressing views that are critical of the Vietnam communist party (ibid.).

The April 1997 Human Rights Watch report entitled Vietnam: Signs of an Imminent Crackdown is attached to this Response to Information Request.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the DIRB within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Agence France Presse (AFP). 18 May 1997. "Vietnam Brushes Off European Parliament Human Rights Resolution." (NEXIS)

Amnesty International (AI). 1997. Amnesty International Report 1997. New York: Amnesty International.

Asia 1997 Yearbook. 1997. 36th ed. Edited by Michael Westlake. Hong Kong: Far Eastern Economic Review.

Asia Times [Hong Kong]. 13 December 1996. Elizabeth Pisani. "Europe Accused of Allowing Hanoi to Hijack Aid Programme." [Internet]  [Accessed 11 Aug. 1997].

Boat People S.O.S. (BPSOS). 8 June 1996. "Report on Persecuted Returnees." [Internet]  [Accessed 5 Aug. 1997]

The Boston Globe. 3 August 1996. City Edition. Charles A. Radin. "For Refugees, Dream is Over; Camps Closing, Boat People Must Turn Back to Vietnam." [NEXIS]

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996. 1997. United States Department of State. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). 23 March 1997. BC Cycle. "Vietnamese Returnee from Hong Kong Faces New Anti-Government Charge." (NEXIS)

European Parliament. 15 May 1997. "European Parliament Condemns Human Rights Violations in Vietnam." [Internet]  [Accessed 5 Aug. 1997]

Freedom Review [Philadelphia]. January-February 1995. Vol. 26, No. 1. Al Santoli. "The UNHCR and Vietnam's Refugee Children: 'Helpless Birds and a Pack of Hounds'."

Freeman, James M. 30 November 1994. "Without a Trace: The Repatriation and Neglect of Vietnamese Unaccompanied Minors." Presentation made at the American Anthropological Association 1994 Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Human Rights Watch/Asia. 3 April 1997. "Vietnam: Signs of an Imminent Crackdown." [Internet].  [Accessed 5 Aug. 1997]

_____. March 1997. Vol. 9, No. 2. Hong Kong: Abuses Against Vietnamese Asylum Seekers in the Final Days of the Comprehensive Plan of Action. New York: Human Rights Watch.

Inter Press Service (IPS). 9 May 1997. Nguyen Phan Phuong. "Vietnam: Asylum Seekers Reluctantly Head Home."

Japan Economic Newswire. 28 May 1997. Susanne Ganz. "U.N. Winds Down Repatriation of Vietnamese from H.K." (NEXIS)

Migration News [Davis, Calif.]. 8 August 1996. "Asia: Camps for Vietnamese Close." [Internet]  [Accessed 5 Aug. 1997]

_____.10 October 1995. Vol. 2, No. 10. "Asia: Vietnamese Returnees Find Little Persecution." [Internet]  [Accessed 5 Aug. 1997]

Refugees [Geneva]. 1996. Vol. 4. Preeta Law. "Leaving Hong Kong."

Reuters. 18 May 1997. BC Cycle. John Chalmers. "Vietnam Rails Against EP Human Rights Condemnation." (NEXIS)

South China Morning Post [Hong Kong]. 5 June 1997. Emma Batha. "Mistakes 'Possible' in Screening of Viets." (NEXIS)

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Hanoi. 26 August 1997. Fax sent to DIRB by UNHCR representative.

_____. 18 August 1997. Telephone interview with UNHCR representative.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  May 1997. "The World: Asia: Viet Nam." (UNHCR/RefWorld database)

_____. 1996. Special Report: Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Indo-Chinese Exodus and the CPA. Geneva: UNHCR.

USA Today [Arlington, Va]. 19 May 1997. Final Edition. James Cox. "Journey to Nowhere: Boat People's Return." (NEXIS)

Vietconnections News [np]. 29 August 1996. "EU Resettles the Last Boat People." [Internet]  [Accessed 11 Aug. 1997]

Vietnamese Refugee Sponsorship Committee, Ottawa. May 1994. Report on Current Situation of Vietnamese Refugee in Southeast Asia.

     VNA News Agency [Hanoi, in English]. 1 May 1997. "UNHCR to Continue Assisting Repatriation of Boat People." (BBC Summary 6 May 1997/NEXIS)

The Xinhua News Agency. 26 April 1997. "Vietnam Ensures Amnesty for all Returnees for Their Illegal Departure." (NEXIS)


Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). 23 March 1997. BC Cycle. "Vietnamese Returnee from Hong Kong Faces New Anti-Government Charge." (NEXIS)

Human Rights Watch/Asia. 3 April 1997. "Vietnam: Signs of an Imminent Crackdown." [Internet].  [Accessed 5 Aug. 1997]

_____. March 1997. Vol. 9, No. 2. Hong Kong: Abuses Against Vietnamese Asylum Seekers in the Final Days of the Comprehensive Plan of Action. New York: Human Rights Watch, pp. 11-21.

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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