The United Nations’ refugee agency met this week with representatives of the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments to “discuss solutions” to the recent influx of Montagnard asylum seekers, with repatriation touted as a possible answer, the Post has learned.
Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the meeting, which took place on Monday, was aimed at finding a resolution “in line with international standards and agreeable to all parties”.
Since October, dozens of Christian Montagnards – an indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – have fled to Cambodia citing religious persecution.
Their arrival has been met with varying responses. Thirteen have so far been granted refugee status, 10 others are seeking to process their asylum claims in Phnom Penh, 13 remain in hiding in the forests of Ratanakkiri province, and – in direct violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention – dozens more have been deported back to Vietnam without due process.
According to those sent back, their deportations were the result of coordinated efforts by Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities. While Tan said that no conclusions had been reached from the talks, she acknowledged that voluntary repatriation had been proposed.
In 2002, Cambodia, Vietnam and UNHCR reached a trilateral voluntary repatriation agreement after UN officials were promised access to the Central Highlands. Three years later, a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding was signed to repatriate refugees under controlled conditions.
The 2005 agreement came under fire from rights groups and observers, who said it authorised the forced repatriation of recognised refugees who refused resettlement abroad, and had insufficient provisions for monitoring and protecting returnees.
A 2006 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted the issue of returnees being persecuted for leaving. It cited interviews with some who had “doubled back”, that is, they had returned but “experienced such severe persecution that they fled a second time to Cambodia”.
The report said the accounts “call into serious question the credibility of UNHCR’s monitoring of returnees”.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said yesterday that the group still has “serious concerns that it is not possible to systematically and sustainably monitor the conditions for return of Montagnards to Vietnam”. He added that UNHCR now has “even fewer staff in Cambodia and less capacity to take on such a mission”.
“If this is being discussed, that should set off alarm bells for those who care about refugee protection in the region,” he said.
Sister Denise Coghlan of the Jesuit Refugee Service Cambodia said the “root cause” of the problem still needs to be addressed.
“It’s nine years since all of that happened, and it still seems that refugees and asylum seekers are claiming the same religious persecution,” she said, explaining that until the persecution ends, it is unlikely that refugees will agree to return.
Government officials would not confirm details of Monday’s talks, while the Vietnamese Embassy could not be reached.
But according to Tan, other possible solutions discussed in the meeting include resettlement and local integration. UNHCR, she said, continues to “advocate that individuals wishing to seek asylum in Cambodia must be able to access the national asylum system”.
Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said that no countries have yet agreed to resettle the 13 Montagnards granted refugee status earlier this month. The ministry is “worrying about this now. We don’t know where to send them”.
The US Embassy said it had not been approached about resettling the Montagnards, but called for “durable, practical solutions for refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with international humanitarian standards”.
Robertson said finding a solution for the Montagnards would be difficult. “The problem is the only solution that would be agreeable to the Montagnards themselves is for Vietnam to end its discriminatory policies and abusive harassment of Montagnard communities in the highlands, and so far Vietnam has shown no inclination to do that.”
He added that third-country resettlement should not have been discussed with Vietnam. “These people have fled for a reason, and Hanoi should not be given another shot at them.”
Meanwhile, for those still in hiding, a solution cannot come soon enough.
“They are still waiting for help from the UN . . . they have very little food from villagers even to eat once a day,” said a man assisting the asylum seekers who asked not to be named. “Two have bad fevers, stomach aches, and their bodies are sick all over.”