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12 Montagnards repatriated

Twelve Montagnard asylum seekers were “voluntarily” escorted back to Vietnam yesterday evening after spending months in Phnom Penh hoping to be granted refugee status.

The group, which included three young children, was escorted by officials from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadav International Border Checkpoint and handed over to Vietnamese authorities shortly before 7pm.

Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s spokeswoman, said the group’s return was facilitated “at their [own] request and on an exceptional basis . . . after verifying that they had opted for it voluntarily.”

She added that the Vietnamese government had “agreed to receive them and given assurances that it will not discriminate against or punish them. It has also provided assurances that UNHCR will be able to visit them after their return home.”

Since October, well over 100 Montagnards – an indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – have fled to Cambodia citing religious and political persecution.

So far, just 13 have been granted refugee status, while dozens have been deported, and many more left in limbo in Phnom Penh awaiting registration.

Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri’s provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said the 12 that returned yesterday were among 31 Montagnards to enter Cambodia from Thailand – where they had initially fled to seek refugee status – in March.

“They wished to have a better economic situation in another country, but after long months of waiting they decided to go back to Vietnam,” Thy said.

Chea Bunthoeun, Ratanakkiri’s deputy police chief in charge of immigration, said the 12 were “the second group that decided to go back like this”.

Interior Ministry officials and the Vietnamese Embassy could not be reached yesterday.

Human Rights Watch last month listed arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture as some of the crimes perpetrated by Vietnamese authorities that are driving Montagnards to flee to Cambodia.

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