Twenty-nine Montagnards with compelling refugee claims are set to be deported to Vietnam in just over 10 days, according to the refugee department, leaving them in fear of imprisonment and persecution.
The 29 – including seven children – are among 36 Montagnards that the UN’s refugee body, the UNHCR, is seeking to relocate to a safe third country based on the seriousness of their claims.
On Thursday the 29 Montagnards – a mostly Christian ethnic minority from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – were informed that their applications had been rejected and they would be deported in 15 days, around September 22, said asylum seeker Y Rin Kpa, 47.
“I am very scared and very worried,” he said, adding that he feared reprisals from Vietnamese authorities. “They would not stop; they would continue to punish me.”
Kpa said he spent nearly 10 years in a Vietnamese prison, from 2001 to 2010, after taking part in a religious freedom demonstration.
After six months in Daklak prison – where he said he was brutally beaten by prison guards until his head bled – he was given a secret one-day trial before spending a decade behind bars.
“They did not treat us fairly . . . They took our lands, they do not allow us to worship, they really push us down and oppress us,” he said.
He arrived in Cambodia with his wife on June 7, 2015, and has been awaiting a verdict on his refugee status ever since.
“Before I left, they summoned me to the police station, and they said that if you ever run away, like to Cambodia, and if we get you back, we’ll put you in jail for 20 years,” Kpa said.
“I am begging to the UN to intervene and help us so we can become refugees,” he added.
“I’m asking the international organisations, I’m asking all the human rights organisations and everyone around the world to talk to the Cambodian government so they will stop what they are doing.”
The UNHCR said yesterday that they still hoped the government would allow the remaining 29 to be moved to another country.
UNHCR spokesman Alistair Boulton said an appeal had been made to Interior Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Kim Lek.
“[W]e have written to the Secretary of State noting that while Cambodian law requires them to leave Cambodia, it does not require them to return to their country of origin and we are willing to facilitate their departure to a country to which they are willing to go and which is willing to accept them,” he said in an email.
Kim Lek referred all questions to Immigration Department head Sok Phal, who in turn referred questions to Refugee Department Director Tan Sovichea, who confirmed the impending return.
“We cannot grant them refugee status, so they will need to return to Vietnam,” he said, stressing the decision was up to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, not the UN.
“Why does the UNHCR want to take these 29 to a third country? In the sub-decree, UNHCR has no right to grant refugee status.”
He said while he could not answer for Kheng, he found it unlikely he would change his mind.
Additional reporting by Phak Seangly