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Vietnamese refugees held in Thailand say they fear being forced home

Two Vietnamese refugees held by authorities in Thailand say they fear for their safety after being visited in detention by Vietnamese embassy staff who urged them to return home, where they face charges as political activists.

Nguyen Thi Thuy and Ho Nhut Hung, both members of the civil society Constitution Group promoting freedom of expression and assembly in Vietnam, had fled as refugees to Thailand in September 2018.

Both had taken part in protests against proposed laws on cybersecurity and the granting of Special Economic Zones to foreign investors that rocked major cities across Vietnam four years ago, leading to mass arrests.

Living on expired UN-issued refugee cards in a province north of Bangkok, Thuy and Hung were detained by Thai Royal Police on July 24, 2022, charged with “illegal immigration and residence” and sent to an Immigration Detention Center in the capital.

Speaking to RFA by phone this week, Thuy said that she and Hung were visited in detention in early August by staff from Vietnam’s embassy in Bangkok who tried to persuade them to return to Vietnam.

“Surprisingly, they knew my room number and my prison identification number,” Thuy said. “They told us they would create the best conditions for our repatriation, and warned us that if we did not agree and waited instead for help from the UN, we would be in trouble.”

Both Thuy and Hung refused the embassy’s request, she said.

“We told the embassy that we now use UN identification cards instead of Vietnamese passports, and that we would therefore wait until hearing from the UN, even if we have to die here,” she said.

In February 2019, UN refugee officials issued cards with ID codes to Thuy and Hung, but the cards expired last year, Thuy said. Restricted by the COVID pandemic from visiting UN offices in person, the pair were told by phone that their cards had been renewed, but they were unable to pick them up and were still using their old cards when they were arrested, she said.

Detainees held at Bangkok’s IDC have only intermittent access to water and are served food lacking nutrition, Thuy said. Her cell normally housing up to 60 women is now less crowded, though, as half of the detainees held there have been moved to other facilities, she added.

Social activists in Thailand have raised funds from different sources, including Vietnamese living overseas, to help Thuy and Hung pay around 114,000 baht ($3,233) for bail, fines for illegal immigration, and charges for COVID tests, Thuy said.

Release date uncertain

Two weeks have now passed since Thuy and Hung were detained, but they still don’t know when they will be released, and Thuy’s calls to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok have rung unanswered, she said.

Calls seeking comment on Thuy’s and Hung’s case from Vietnam’s embassy in Thailand received no response this week, but an employee at the UNHCR office in Bangkok said they were aware of the situation and promised to report it to a senior official.

Also speaking to RFA, Nguyen Hoan An — a Vietnamese social activist also living as a refugee in Thailand — said that refugees held in detention are normally freed on the same day their bail is paid.

Detainees cannot be forced home if they refuse requests from their embassy to repatriate, An added. He noted however that Thai police have recently entered rented rooms without a warrant to arrest illegal immigrants, reporting falsely that the arrests took place in the street.

Refugees’ requests to UNHCR and law firms for help are often handled slowly or receive no reply, An said.

“We are calling on communities, media groups and especially the organizations responsible for protecting refugees to pay more attention,” An said. “We hope that they will take action quickly whenever refugees are arrested or face security risks so that they are not intimidated and extradited back to Vietnam.”

In January 2019, RFA blogger Truong Duy Nhat was arrested by Vietnamese police agents in Bangkok and forced back to Vietnam just a day after submitting an application for refugee status to UNHCR. He was later taken to court and sentenced to 10 years in prison for “abusing his official position” in a purchase of real estate under Article 356 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Richard Finney.