With the deadline looming for hundreds of Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia to return “voluntarily” to the site of their alleged persecution or be forced back across the border, a group who have spent months living in the shadows this week spoke out about their life in limbo and fears of impending abuse.
In a safe-house on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, four of the Vietnamese asylum seekers knelt on the floor of a dingy room where they recalled the beatings and arrests they say drove them into Cambodia.
Three of them arrived seven months ago, crossing the well-trodden path over the border into Ratanakkiri province’s vast forests with eight other asylum seekers.
The fourth arrived in July in a group of 13, crossing into Svay Rieng province. Like hundreds of others, they then travelled down to the capital in hopes that the United Nations would be able to help.
They are now sharing a house with 35 other asylum seekers, including 10 young children. Between three and five people are crammed into each bedroom, they said.
With the government refusing to register their claims and threatening to deport them if they haven’t returned to Vietnam by February 6, they have little to do but wait to be forced back home, where they say abuse is inevitable.
Life in a city that doesn’t want them has proved solitary, with the group rarely venturing outside for fear of arrest.
“We’re bored and tired staying in the room, in such a small space. Mostly we stay indoors without doing any exercise . . . My legs and hands are numb. We want to go outside. We want to do work,” said 29-year-old Binh*, who arrived in Phnom Penh in March.
But the group said a life in hiding is better than what awaits them across the border.
Since being informed a few weeks ago of the government’s deadline, they say that they have been struggling to sleep, consumed by nightmares of persecution, violence and imprisonment.
After a small number of Montagnards arrived in Cambodia last October, dozens more quickly followed. More than 200 have taken the risky journey in less than a year.
All of the asylum seekers from the predominantly Christian minority group from Vietnam’s central highlands claim to be fleeing religious or political persecution.
In the past year, the Montagnards have been accused in Vietnamese state media of possessing religious “evil ways” and politically “autonomous thoughts”.
In Gia Lai province – home to three of the group that spoke out this week – local television has reported that officials have organised “search and hunt” actions to seek out unofficial religious activities, according to Human Rights Watch.
It adds that legal mechanisms to control religion have also increased.
In January 2013, “the government promulgated Decree 92 . . . [which] includes onerous requirements for official permission to practise religious beliefs and vague prohibitions on religious expression, making it easier for the authorities to selectively repress any religious activities they desire”.
All four of the asylum seekers in Phnom Penh told the Post they had been persecuted because of their beliefs.
“When the Vietnamese authorities see us gathering to pray and talk about our religion, they summon and arrest us or our leaders for questioning,” Binh said.
He claimed there are no limits to the oppression.
“Even when we raise money and rice for a funeral the Vietnamese authorities summon us for questioning. We don’t have religious freedom. We are accused of opposing the Vietnamese authorities when we hold religious gatherings because believing in Christ is considered opposition to the Vietnamese government”.
Binh – who left his two young sons and wife back in Vietnam for fear that they wouldn’t be able to cope with the arduous journey across the border and would face even harsher mistreatment if they were caught and forced to return – was imprisoned for more than seven years for opposing the government. He claims the sentence stemmed from his religious activities.
He pulled out documents confirming his sentence, which he had hoped to use in the refugee interviews that the government is refusing to permit.
He stood up and acted out torture methods that he claims to have endured during his sentence, including being hung from the ceiling with just the tips of his toes touching the ground, and having his ears repeatedly slapped.
The eldest member of the group, 45-year-old Puih Houng – who insisted that his real name be used – joined in, acting out how he was beaten by the authorities during stints in prison.
Puih Houng pulled off his shirt, revealing crudely etched tattoos identifying him as a Montagnard and a representative of his community.
“When the Vietnamese authorities saw, they arrested me and beat me up until I was unconscious. They did it because of the tattoos; they accused me of opposing the Vietnamese authorities.”
One of Puih Houng’s latest tattoos depicts a screaming face. Below it are the letters “UNHCR” – the UN agency he hopes will put an end to the alleged horrors.
Fear of return
Both men have made the journey to Cambodia multiple times in the past.
Puih Houng pulled out a letter from UNHCR from more than a decade ago informing him that his asylum application had been rejected. He says he will continue to flee until he is recognised as a refugee.
The other two asylum seekers interviewed had never fled before.
When asked if any specific incident had prompted the wave of Montagnards across the border, all four said it was a result of continuing and heightening persecution.
“Our purpose here is to ask UNHCR to shelter us somewhere safe,” Binh said.
But the group’s hopes have been dashed by announcements that they will not be given access to the asylum-application process, which the government took over from UNHCR in 2009.
The four claimed that UNHCR had warned them that if they didn’t return they would be handed over to the government.
But the agency said its remarks had been misinterpreted.
“UNHCR has informed the Montagnards of the government’s announcements and counselled them on their options. For those who decide to return to Vietnam, we talk to them further to ensure that they are doing so voluntarily,” said regional spokesperson Vivian Tan.
“UNHCR fully respects the principle of non-refoulement and cannot repatriate people against their will,” she added.
All four asylum seekers said they would never voluntarily return to Vietnam, but with even 13 registered Montagnard refugees under threat of deportation if resettlement options are not found, they know the outlook is bleak.
“When we were told [about the deadline] we were worried. We couldn’t sleep or eat,” said 33-year-old Chau*, a female asylum seeker who arrived in late July.
UNHCR has received assurances from Vietnam that Montagnards who do return will not be mistreated.
Tan said UNHCR has visited “over a third” of the 36 Montagnards who have returned already with the agency’s help “and hope to have access to the others”. But the asylum seekers in Phnom Penh said they were certain that the abuse would continue.
“The UN trust promises made by the Vietnamese authorities . . . [because] when the UN is there, there is no problem, but when the UN leaves we are summoned for questioning and mistreated.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, agreed that “pledges to protect returning Montagnards are not worth the breath that leaders in Hanoi used to utter them”.
“We’ve seen repeated cycles of rights abuses, and ethnic and religious discrimination, inflicted by Vietnam against the Montagnards and any official or organisation who fails to realise that is deliberately fooling themselves,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak this week repeated claims that the unregistered Montagards are not legitimate asylum seekers and would be forced to return if they fail to meet the deadline.
But amid the threats, more Montagnards are planning to enter Cambodia. An ethnic Jarai man living in Ratanakkiri who has helped groups of the asylum seekers reach Phnom Penh said “many more” have asked about the situation in Cambodia and for his assistance.
*Names have been changed to protect identities