Seven Montagnards recognised as refugees by Cambodia will be sent to the Philippines on Friday, according to Immigration Department Chief Sok Phal, although the fates of another 29 asylum seekers with well-founded fears of persecution back in Vietnam hang in the balance.
The seven will be joining 13 Montagnard refugees sent in May last year to the Philippines, according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), before they will be sent to another unnamed country for resettlement.
UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said currently “the 13 remain where they are as longer-term solutions are sought”, but declined to comment further as “the concerned countries have requested discretion on the issue”.
Uk Hai Sela, head of immigration investigations at the Ministry of Interior, yesterday said he had not received any update regarding the planned deportation of the 29 Montagnards – many of whom have claimed they were jailed in Vietnam.
“I was asking about the Montagnard situation this morning, not [specifically] about the 29, but I have had no response yet,” he said.
“I asked Refugee [Department] Director General Tan Sovichea. He said it is still complicated, and not approved from the director,” Hai Sela added, referring to Sok Phal.
Phal, reached yesterday, confirmed the seven Montagnards would be sent to the Philippines on Friday, but when asked about the 29 asylum seekers still in limbo, he said “now I am busy” before hanging up.
The UNHCR late last week said it remained “hopeful” the Cambodian authorities would allow them to take the 29 to a safe third country, rather than forcibly deporting them to Vietnam, which could breach Cambodia’s non-refoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention.
Last week several Montagnards spoke candidly to The Post about the mistreatment they endured at the hands of Vietnamese authorities, who they said seized their land, forbade them from worshipping Christianity, and jailed and beat them.
The fears they expressed were in part backed up by the release yesterday of a report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which said Vietnam had “made progress to improve religious freedom conditions, but severe violations continue, especially against ethnic minority communities”, including the Montagnards.
The report, A Right for All: Freedom of Religion or Belief in Asean, said some Montagnards “are prevented from holding religious ceremonies, many are summoned to meet with local authorities and pressured to cease practicing their faith, and pastors are harassed or punished”.
“There is a disconnect between the central government’s overtures to improve religious freedom conditions and the ongoing actions taken by local officials, public security, and organized thugs to threaten and physically harm religious followers and their houses of worship or other religious property,” it reads.