A Vietnamese government delegation visited Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh on Tuesday to tell them they would face no punishment if they returned to their homeland in Vietnam’s central highlands, according to a source at the meeting.
In a move called “strange” by a refugee advocate and “concerning” by the United Nation’s refugee agency, the group met with Montagnards yesterday morning at a building in Phnom Penh where more than 100 of the Christian ethnic minority are residing.
The delegation – which reportedly included local police officers from villages where some of the asylum seekers fled alleged persecution – were accompanied by members of the Interior Ministry’s Refugee Department, according to the source.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees also monitored the visit and said officials from both countries participated, though the Interior Ministry refugee department’s deputy chief yesterday said he was unaware of the meeting.
The Vietnamese officials handed out some food and also told the group they could request to return home with help from Vietnamese authorities, according to the source at the meeting, who added that the message was not well received.
“The Vietnamese authority promised not to mistreat them but they did not believe it,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They came to lure them back.”
UNHCR regional representative Vivian Tan said the agency – which has assisted in voluntary repatriation efforts for Montagnards – did not organise or support Tuesday’s meeting.
“We were told the purpose of the visit was to distribute some assistance to the asylum-seekers,” Tan said in an email.
“There was no forced return. However UNHCR is concerned as we believe that no asylum-seeker should be obliged to meet representatives for a government from a country against which they have alleged a fear of persecution.”
Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, which works with the Montagnards, said it was “very strange” for a country to be given access to asylum seekers who have fled from its territory.
However, given the group’s prolonged limbo in Cambodia, the move may be a step forward as long as Vietnam was sincere in its pledge to allow them to return without repercussions, she said. “If they agreed to stop the villagers’ persecution and threatening the minority groups, then maybe it is the first step to some kind of reconciliation,” Coghlan said.
Calls to the Vietnamese embassy went unanswered yesterday.
Hundreds of Montagnards fled across the border last year, after 13 initial asylum seekers were granted refugee status by Cambodian authorities.
The government, however, quickly moved to cast the new arrivals as economic migrants, much to the chagrin of refugee advocates, who highlighted reports of persecution by Vietnamese authorities against the group for their religious and political beliefs.
After months of pressure, the government agreed to begin registering a group of around 200 Montagnards living in the capital as asylum seekers in January.
Reached yesterday, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s Refugee Department Mom Sophanarith said he was unaware of the visit on Tuesday.
Sophanarith said up to 80 per cent of the group had been registered and some had been interviewed, which he said was like an examination.
He said some of the interviewees had “failed” and not supported their claim, and some had passed – though he wouldn’t say whether this meant they would be given refugee status as the process was still ongoing.
However, even if the applicants are found to be refugees it’s unsure whether they will be allowed to stay in Cambodia.
Sophanarith said the 13 recognised as refugees were last month sent to the Philippines, but did not say if they would from there be sent to another country.
Additional reporting by Shaun Turton