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Ethnic Montagnards who fled from Vietnam in an alleged attempt to escape political persecution pose for a photo in Ratanakkiri province in December before being deported by Cambodian authorities.  ADHOC
Ethnic Montagnards who fled from Vietnam in an alleged attempt to escape political persecution pose for a photo in Ratanakkiri province in December before being deported by Cambodian authorities. ADHOC

Montagnards mull leaving

With the clock ticking for Montagnards in Phnom Penh to leave the country or face forced repatriation, some of the asylum seekers have asked the UN Refugee Agency to help them return to Vietnam.

Vivian Tan, a regional spokesperson for UNHCR, said “a few people” have asked the agency “about the possibility of facilitating their return”.

But, she added, “the numbers and plans are not definitive at this point”.

Hundreds of Montagnards – a predominantly Christian indigenous group from Vietnam’s central highlands – have fled to Cambodia over the past year citing religious and political persecution.

So far, just 13 have been recognised as refugees, dozens have been deported and more than 200 have been left in limbo in the capital.

On September 11, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government had set a three-month deadline for the unregistered Montagnards to return home or face being forcibly expelled.

Tan, however, said the threats did not appear to be behind the Montagnards’ decision to leave.

“We were approached before and after the announcement, which these individuals didn’t seem to be aware of,” she said, adding that UNHCR staff would “counsel them on their options so that they can make informed decisions” on whether to return.

Vietnam has offered UNHCR assurances that returning Montagnards will not be mistreated.

Amid similar vows, 12 of the unregistered Montagnards returned in July.

Tan said UNHCR had heard “from a few of the 12 returnees” through a partner agency, “who said they are doing alright”.

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