The position of almost 1,000 Vietnamese Montagnard refugees in two camps in north-east
Cambodia looks set to be resolved after the United States formally requested March
26 that the Cambodian government allow them to resettle in the US.
The resettlement request came after a fortnight of high drama that culminated in
the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, pulling out of the much-criticized tripartite agreement
between itself and the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments.
That was on the back of the visit to the Mondolkiri refugee camp by a group of around
450 Vietnamese on a family visit trip March 21. Some of the Vietnamese kicked in
doors at the camp and threatened UNHCR staff. The UN body pulled out of the tripartite
agreement the following day, citing serious violations by Cambodia and Vietnam that
went against its operating standards.
A US embassy official told the Post March 28 there was still no word from the Cambodian
government on the US request for resettlement.
"We have always held out the offer to resettle all those Montagnards who wish
to [do so]," he said. "We are hopeful [the Cambodian government] will give
us the green light."
At a press briefing in Washington March 26, the US State Department said the future
of the refugees had been "unresolved for too long".
"In the light of the urgent humanitarian needs of these asylum seekers, the
United States has formally offered resettlement in the United States to all among
this group who qualify and wish to be resettled," said spokesman Richard Boucher.
"We request that the Royal Government of Cambodia respond to this offer as quickly
Om Yentieng, personal advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, acknowledged the government
had received the "formal request", but gave no indication as to when the
proposal might be agreed.
However, Yentieng told the Post March 28 that the government wished to see the current
Montagnard issue "solved as soon as possible, not delayed".
"This issue occurred a year ago and has been postponed without finding a solution,"
Yentieng said. "The brothers living in the camps have faced a lot of difficulties.
That is why, based on humanitarian motives, we have tried to find a solution."
For its part, the Vietnamese government condemned UNHCR on March 24. It said the
refugee agency "regrettably has not seriously implemented the [tripartite] agreement"
and had failed to repatriate sufficient numbers of refugees late February. Hanoi
expected more than 100 refugees would return with the assistance of UNHCR; in the
event, only 15 volunteered to do so.
The Vietnamese government expressed "extreme surprise and grave concern"
at UNHCR's withdrawal from the tripartite agreement. Hanoi also reiterated the allegation
that UNHCR camp officials "are involved in bringing these people illegally across
the border into Cambodia, preventing and threatening those who wish to return".
The question of the Cambodian government's commitment to future asylum seekers from
Vietnam was also raised this week. Om Yentieng said that the government had recognised
as legitimate asylum seekers "only this number who qualify to be helped".
"Other than these [Montagnards under UNHCR protection], I believe that [new
asylum seekers] are not in the same situation," he concluded.
A Western diplomat said that the international community still expected the Cambodian
government, which has signed the refugee convention, would continue to respect its
provisions, in the same way as any country.
"They have an obligation to meet them," he said. "All we would ask
a country to do is to meet those obligations. They do it around the world on a daily
The refugees fled Vietnam's Central Highlands after an uprising protesting land grabs
and discrimination in February 2001. The Cambodian government has come in for regular
criticism for sending back asylum seekers over the past year against the provisions
of the convention.