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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vietnam warns UNHCR over Montagnards

Vietnam warns UNHCR over Montagnards

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UNHCR's Jahanshah Assadi with Montagnards in Mondolkiri May 18.

Vietnamese officials have issued a stern warning to the United Nations High Commission

for Refugees not to establish official refugee camps in Cambodia's Mondolkiri province

to process increasing numbers of Montagnards fleeing the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Chu Dong Loc, Attaché at the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

in Phnom Penh, told the Post that UNCHR's presence in Mondolkiri was playing into

the hands of "outside propagandists and agitators". UNHCR's continued involvement

in the refugee crisis might precipitate a refugee crisis on a scale unseen in the

region since the 1980s, he added.

"We have advised UNHCR not to get involved with the illegal crossing of Montagnards

[and] not to set up illegal refugee camps which will only increase [the number] of

those credulous Vietnamese to cross into Cambodia," Dong Loc said in a May 22

interview. "This act of UNHCR is inhuman for credulous [Montagnard] people themselves."

An estimated 165 Montagnards - predominantly Christian hill tribes whose traditional

lands encompass portions of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos - have taken refuge in Cambodia's

northeastern Mondolkiri province in recent weeks fleeing what they say is political

and religious persecution in Vietnam.

An initial 24 Montagnards were granted political asylum in the United States in April,

but persistent rumors of hundreds more hiding in Mondolkiri's forests prompted UNHCR's

involvement and the arrival of its Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi on Monday,

May 14.

John Farvolden, Phnom Penh-based UNHCR Officer-in-Charge, told the Post that UNHCR

had yet to determine if the group of Montagnards were legitimate refugees under the

terms of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

"Any person who expressed a fear related to the convention can become a 'person

of concern'," Farvolden said, and thus benefit from UNHCR protection.

The Convention states that refugee status be awarded any person with a "...well-founded

fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of

a particular social group or political opinion."

Only a handful of the 165 Montagnards known to the UNHCR in Mondolkiri have had an

in-depth interview with UNHCR personnel, an essential stage in determining whether

they are eligible for refugee status, and none of those interviews has yet been assessed.

But Dong Loc says UNHCR's involvement in the matter is unwanted and unneeded, saying

that the Montagnards are victims of "outside forces" hostile to Vietnam

- including remnants of the former FULRO anti-Communist insurgency movement - rather

than genuine refugees.

"The illegal crossing [into Cambodia] of Vietnamese Mont-agnards who are allegedly

refugees is due to outside propaganda and agitation...[of] anti-government [forces]

from many countries...[who] have created many anti-government actions in recent years,"

Dong Loc said of the source of the Montagnard crisis. "They try to instigate

and incite [Montagnards] not to stay in Vietnam and to flee. Montagnard people may

see their fleeing as a way to get to a third country."

However a "third country" is not currently being considered as an option

by UNHCR. "They are seeking temporary asylum [in Cambodia], " Farvolden

said, although he added that it was impossible to tell when the 165 Montagnards might

be repatriated.

Vietnam, according to Dong Loc, views the border crossings as a strictly internal

affair of Vietnam and Cambodia and that neither fall under the remit of UNHCR nor

meet the criteria as refugees as defined by the 1951 Convention on the Status of

Refugees.

"This international law [on refugees] should be applied when refugees are being

abused and mistreated in their country," he said. "There's no mistreatment

or oppression [of Montagnards] in Vietnam so don't apply the international law you

refer to."

Instead, Dong Loc said that the Central Highlands of Vietnam were now peaceful and

that unrest there allegedly incited in recent months by "outside forces"

had come to an end thanks to "persuasion and education" by Vietnamese government

authorities.

Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith says that Cambodia does not have a

choice in its handling of the Mondolkiri issue and is bound by "international

practice".

"If they are fleeing Vietnam because of political harassment then they enjoy

special status...if the Vietnamese have more information then they can contact us,

otherwise we will deal with UNHCR," he said.

Concerns about the possible fate of Montagnards who return to Vietnam, either voluntarily

or, as rumored, forcibly by Cambodian authorities were unfounded, Dong Loc said.

"Those [returning] Vietnamese will be well treated and welcomed home,"

he said.

Farvolden expressed concern at the reports of forced repatriations but said that

none had been confirmed.

"[Forcible repatriations] would be a disappointment to us because we have a

commitment from the Cambodian government that no one would be forcibly repatriated,"

he said.

UNHCR efforts to get access to the Central Highlands region to independently assess

the situation on the other side of the border have not been successful.

"We have asked the Vietnamese government for access to the Central Highlands,"

Farvolden said. "We don't have that [permission] yet, but we are working on

it."

Dong Loc warned that a continued and expanded UNHCR presence in Mondolkiri would

precipitate a humanitarian refugee crisis that could rival the 1980s Vietnamese "boat

people" exodus.

"We have to refer to the problem of Vietnamese boat people in the past. UNHCR

is fully aware that the root cause of the Vietnamese boat people problem was propaganda

and incitement from outside," he said. "This is a lesson to the UNHCR...The

issue [of Montagnard refugees] will be settled by Vietnam and Cambodia and does not

concern UNHCR and other third countries."

Failure of UNHCR to heed Vietnam's concerns regarding the Mondolkiri situation, Dong

Loc suggested, put at risk the well-being of the "tens of thousands" of

Cambodian refugees that Dong Loc said fled to Vietnam in 1979 and have been there

ever since.

"Our message is that UNHCR should think about their responsibility to Cambodian

refugees who fled to Vietnam in 1979...UNHCR abandoned them and Vietnam has to take

care of them," he said. "We think UNHCR should think of the consequences

[of involvement in the Mondolkiri situation]."

For its part, Kanharith says, the RGC simply want the matter dealt with "as

speedily as possible" and with a "low profile".

"We want to avoid any 'pull factor', to avoid people coming here just for economic

reasons," he said.

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