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,
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
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
"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
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
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
"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,"
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,"
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
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
"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
"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.