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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Asylum seekers returned to Vietnam

Montagnard refugees sit at a house in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district last year after fleeing political persecution in Vietnam.
Montagnard refugees sit at a house in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district last year after fleeing political persecution in Vietnam. Hong Menea

Asylum seekers returned to Vietnam

Thirteen Montagnards were returned to Vietnam on Monday having failed or withdrawn their applications for asylum, while more look set to follow after a government official yesterday said the remaining 156 Montagnard asylum seekers had all been assessed and the “majority” had not qualified as refugees.

The departing group, which included two families with children, according to a refugee advocate, was escorted to O’Yadav border checkpoint in Ratanakkiri province by staff from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has been given assurances they will not be mistreated, said UNHCR regional spokesman Vivian Tan.

They were received by Vietnamese immigration police, who will take them back to their homes in Vietnam’s central highlands.“

A total of 13 Montagnards returned voluntarily to Viet Nam from Cambodia on Monday, 19 December,” Tan said by email.

“They include asylum-seekers whose cases had received negative decisions or who had decided to withdraw their applications … UNHCR will visit them after their return as agreed with the Vietnamese authorities.”

Hundreds of Montagnards, a predominately Christian ethnic group, fled to Cambodia last year, claiming they faced political and religious persecution. The influx followed the granting of refugee status for 13 Montagnards, who have since been sent to Manila.

After threatening to deport the subsequent arrivals, the government belatedly agreed in January to register and process the group as asylum seekers.

Some, however, returned to Vietnam voluntarily. Another group of 16 were repatriated in July after their claims were rejected or withdrawn.

Tan said the UN had monitored some of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department’s interviews with the Montagnards and had no objections to the decisions so far.

Likewise, sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, which has supported the Montagnards, said the recent returnees – including a family who had appealed, but been rejected – appeared to have been granted due process.

“It seems to me that the decisions were pretty fair, but time will tell what will happen to them,” Coghlan said.

“It leaves 156 here; we haven’t got any more decisions. No one else knows their decisions, either yes or no.”

Speaking yesterday, Mom Sophanarith, deputy director of the Refugee Department, said the department had this month finished assessing the rest of the Montagnards in Phnom Penh.

Though declining to give specifics, he said most did not meet the criteria for refugee status.

“I could not tell how many will pass and fail, but the majority of them, almost all, don’t have anything remarkable to make them eligible for refugee status,” Sophanarith said.

“They were not persecuted [in Vietnam]. They hoped to get access to a third country because they want to have better lives,” he said. “They just want to live in the US or France … They’re too lazy to work and want to be fed.”

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