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Germany: A hotbed of Vietnamese dissidents

October 26, 2023

Many Vietnamese dissidents see Germany as their country of choice if they were ever forced into exile. DW looks at the factors driving their decision.

Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai (center) and defendant Nguyen Bac Truyen (right)
Rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen (right) was released from jail and allowed to travel to GermanyImage: Vietnam News Agency/AP Photo/picture alliance

Nguyen Bac Truyen, a Vietnamese religious freedom advocate who had been imprisoned in 2018 for subversion, arrived in Germany in September — joining half a dozen high-profile compatriots who had also found refuge in the European country.

In a Facebook post, Truyen said he had been allowed to travel from Vietnam to Germany with his wife. 

Since 2018, Germany has become an alternative haven for Vietnamese dissidents who, in the past, would have normally headed into exile in the United States, according to analysts.

"I value freedom. Being released and living somewhere other than my homeland, Vietnam, is something no one wants, but this is an option to escape an unjust prison sentence and allow me to reunite with my wife," Truyen told Radio Free Asia shortly after arriving in Germany.

Activist Vu Quoc Dung accepts Germany's foremost human rights award on behalf of jailed Vietnamese human rights lawyer Nguyen Van DaiImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance

One of the first Vietnamese dissidents to arrive in Germany was human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai. He had been released early from his 15-year prison sentence and allowed to leave for Germany in 2018, at the height of diplomatic tensions between the two states after the Vietnamese intelligence service kidnapped a fugitive from the streets of Berlin.

Since then, several other dissidents have fled to Germany, including the blogger Bui Thanh Hieu, who was forced into exile in 2013. Sources told DW that several other dissidents have found refuge in Germany — although they did not mention their names for security reasons.

Over 100,000 Vietnamese in Germany

Vietnam is a one-party, communist-run state and one of the most repressive countries in Asia. There are currently 178 activists in prison and a further 386 at risk, according to the 88Project, a human rights advocacy group.

"It seems like fewer exiles are getting out, period — and that is because of the Vietnamese government's tightening controls over freedom of movement," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.

There were 103,000 Vietnamese nationals residing in Germany at the end of 2020, many of whom are now German citizens, according to data from the Federal Statistical Office.

"The vast majority of Vietnamese living here are loyal to the Vietnamese state, attend events hosted by the Vietnamese embassy, only watch VTV4 [a Vietnamese state-run television channel] at home, donate a lot of money to Vietnam and invest money there," said Marina Mai, a freelance journalist living in Berlin.

All of this, she added, is just what Hanoi wants from the "Viet Kieu", a term for overseas Vietnamese.

However, a prominent member of the activist community inside Vietnam told DW that many of his peers are now talking about Germany as the country they would choose to go to if they were ever forced into exile.

Dai's road to Germany

Human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, who is currently in Germany, founded some of Vietnam's most important pro-democracy groups, including the Committee for Human Rights and the Brotherhood for Democracy. Both movements were quickly shut down by the Vietnamese authorities, and Dai was imprisoned for "conducting propaganda against the state."

Trinh Xuan Thanh sought asylum in Germany, but was kidnapped from a Berlin park and spirited away back to VietnamImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Tan

In 2017, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded Germany's foremost human rights award to Dai, who was still in prison. The Vietnamese officials then released him from jail on the condition he left the country. He arrived in Germany in 2018 with his assistant, Le Thu Ha, who had been serving a nine-year prison term.

Analysts said that Hanoi released Dai and allowed him to enter exile in Germany to appease Berlin during the height of the worst tensions between the two countries in decades.

In July 2017, the Vietnamese secret service kidnapped Trinh Xuan Thanh, a fugitive from a state-run enterprise who was wanted for corruption crimes, from the streets of Berlin. The German government responded by expelling two diplomats from the Vietnamese embassy and freezing diplomatic ties.

A source, who asked not to be named, said Dai's release and exile in Germany was a "bribe" that Hanoi paid to Berlin to restore good relations after the kidnapping of Thanh.

Berlin gets 'tough' 

Although relations have improved, in August, the German government warned of "serious diplomatic consequences" should Hanoi attempt to abduct Nguyen Thi Thanh Nhan, another fugitive who had fled to Germany to avoid Vietnamese authorities. Months earlier, she had been sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison on graft charges.

"After the Trinh Xuan Thanh incident, Germany has scrutinized activities by Vietnamese security agencies more closely. This may have made Vietnamese dissidents feel safer to stay in Germany," said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Le Trung Khoa, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Berlin-based newspaper Thoibao.de, believes Germany's current government "is pursuing a tougher policy and attitude towards authoritarian communist states such as Vietnam and China, where human rights are seriously trampled on."

"When activists from these countries come to Germany, they have more opportunities to continue promoting freedom and democracy in their country and around the world," Khao added.

Lawyer: Thanh trial not fair


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Activist community helps newcomers

Germany has a thriving Vietnamese activist community — including dissident Vietnamese-language newspapers and human rights organizations — that help Vietnamese dissidents reach the EU member state.

The arrival of Vietnamese dissidents in Germany is also the result of consistent campaigning by several people there, including high-profile politicians.

Several sources highlighted the work of Gyde Jensen, a politician for the Free Democratic Party and chair of the Bundestag's Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid.

"I think that Mr. Truyen's release was largely due to Ms. Jensen's persistence," said Mai, referring to Nguyen Bac Truyen. Mai also commended the human rights group Veto! for the safe passage of Vietnamese dissidents.

"It looks after the [dissidents] after they enter Germany, helps them look for accommodation, to apply for social benefits, to find German courses, and looks after them when they are sick," Mai said.

Kao concurred: "It did a very good job, not only for Nguyen Bac Truyen, and it will also help many similar cases in the future."

Edited by: Keith Walker

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