The United Nations Has No Business Setting U.S. Refugee Policy in Southeast Asia

With the Democrats stalling the approval of the President’s political appointees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faces a huge problem in cleaning his house of Clinton-Obama holdovers embedded in the State Department.  One crucial position is that of Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.  As the Secretary is surely aware, the U.S. takes in more than twice as many refugees as the rest of the industrialized world combined. 

In recent years, up to 95% of the refugees coming to the U.S. were referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or were the relatives of UN-selected refugees.  Thus, the UN effectively dictates much of U.S. immigration policy.

Under the previous administration, the program gradually shifted towards the resettlement of refugees from Muslim countries.  This has resulted in a bias against those of other religious persuasions, even those suffering severe religious persecution. By law, Congress must consent to the annual refugee quota, but has refused to take this responsibility seriously.  In fact, Congress can name as a special interest any group it wants to admit as refugees or asylum seekers. 

In a meeting on Sept. 14, 2016, UNHCR Director Daisy Dell told the author that, “It is not UNHCR policy to make referrals without first being notified of a country’s willingness to accept them.”  During a trip in February 2007, Ellen Sauerbrey, then Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, told the press in Hanoi and later in Phnom Penh that Christian Montagnards in Vietnam were not suffering persecution nor human rights abuses, and that those who fled to Cambodia were economic refugees and should be sent back to Vietnam.  Sauerbrey added that she “found that these returned Montagnards have not suffered any persecution.”  The Assistant Secretary’s findings were based almost entirely on what the communists had told her, despite numerous independent human rights and religious freedom organizations reports and testimony before congressional hearings that belied their claims.  To the brutal communist regimes that rule both countries, this established an unwritten U.S. policy favoring economic relations over human rights abuses, and demonstrated the willingness of the U.S. State Department to ignore such abuses.  The situation continues to exist today.

To make matters worse, UNHCR has adopted a refugee policy that favors the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists.  In the Sept. 14 meeting, Director Dell stated that it was a mistake for UNHCR-Phnom Penh to approve sending 13 Christian Montagnards to the Philippines in July 2016, as doing so was an “embarrassment” to the communist Vietnamese regime.  Since the mid-2000’s, UNHCR has ceded its mandate to determine who qualifies as a refugee to the Cambodian dictatorship – the very epitome of the fox guarding the henhouse.  

The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen – a former Khmer Rouge commander – was installed by, and is beholden to, the Vietnamese communists.  Cambodia must allow Vietnamese “advisors” to monitor every level of the Phnom Penh government, including the Ministry of Interior, which oversees refugee policy. These “advisors” are present during and often lead interviews with refugees, creating a hostile and intimidating environment.  Interrogations are conducted in Vietnamese, a language in which most Montagnards are not fluent. Their failure to understand the implications of the questions makes it easy to deny them refugee status.  Of more than 400 recent Christian Montagnard refugees who sought refuge in Cambodia, nearly all have been sent back to Vietnam to be imprisoned in its brutal prison system – often a death sentence.  The January 2014 report Vietnam: Torture and Abuse of Political and Religious Prisoners, Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam should be required reading for everyone in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Some time ago, human rights groups received a list of names of 350 Montagnard Christians – church activists, pastors of house-churches, Bible teachers, and congregants – who were being held in harsh conditions in Vietnamese prisons.  Most had been imprisoned for worshiping in house churches or refusing to recant their Christian beliefs.  In recent meetings with U.S. Senators and the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, a list was presented of 100 Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Cao Dai, and other religious leaders who were likewise imprisoned. 

Of course, persecution is not unique to Christian Montagnards.  It is pervasive throughout the Vietnamese society, affecting other minorities, people of other religious persuasions, and anyone who dares to speak out and advocate for democracy, freedom of speech and the press, internet freedom, equal justice under the law, or against government misdeeds and corruption.  The persecution extends beyond the principals to their extended families as well. 

The Montagnards, who were among America’s most loyal allies during the Vietnam War, lost over one-half of their adult male population fighting alongside our Special Forces.  Without their sacrifice, there would be many more names on that black granite wall at the Vietnam Memorial.

There are fewer than a hundred Christian Montagnards left in Cambodia; most of those who sought refuge there were  sent back to Vietnam a few fled to Thailand.  Several thousand Montagnards, Hmong, Vietnamese, and others remain in Thailand, seeking asylum after fleeing persecution in Vietnam, or having lost their homes and lands as punishment or through illegal seizure.  Many of these refugees can provide documentation of prior association with Americans, such as Special Forces, copies of arrest warrants for practicing their religion, or kinship with relatives in the U.S.  In the meantime, they languish in poverty, with the constant threat of being deported back to Vietnam and prison.  UNHCR-Thailand is chronically understaffed and lacks personnel with adequate language skills to accurately identify, classify, and process asylum seekers in a timely manner.  Nor has the U.S. agreed to accept them as refugees.

One might hope that fixing this broken UNHCR refugee policy will be a priority of Secretary Tillerson among the myriad other problems in the State Department.


Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer and is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples of the region, and has written extensively on these subjects.