The Cambodian government is resolved to deport 29 Montagnards back to Vietnam, officials said yesterday, claiming the group would not be persecuted on their return – contrary to warnings from refugee advocates.
Last Friday, seven Montagnards – members of Christian ethnic tribes of Vietnam’s Central Highlands – were sent to the Philippines to join 13 others the Cambodian government deemed to be refugees.
But the refugee claims of 29 have been rejected and they face imminent deportation, despite the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) claiming their fears of persecution are well-founded.
One refugee who landed in the Philippines on Friday, Kpa Yum, 40, fled his home country on August 6, 2015, after being punished for his beliefs. “They put me in a re-education camp at Phu Yen province, Dong Xuan district,” he said yesterday. “I stayed in jail for seven years.”
Just last month, he said, Vietnamese authorities visited his wife and forced her to write a letter calling him home. He said leaving Cambodia after two years in limbo was a relief, but bittersweet. “I feel good to be in the Philippines. I feel almost free, and safer,” he said. “But I am still very sad, because my older brother is still in Cambodia.”
“I am afraid that the Cambodian government will not let them go to a third country . . . If they went back they would end up in jail or might have some mental problems because they were tortured before.”
However, Immigration Department Director Sok Phal yesterday denied the refugees would be victimised by the Vietnamese. He claimed of 179 Montagnards interviewed, only seven had legitimate refugee claims, “while the rest, they must go back to their home country”.
“They cannot go to jail because the UNHCR knows itself that they will go back and live with their brothers and sisters and there is no problem that they [would] go to jail,” he said. “Even if they will be jailed in Vietnam, that could not be hidden from the international community.”
Refugee Department Director Tan Sovichea said the Interior Ministry had already informed the UNHCR that it was “following what we had agreed from before … [that] those who cannot be granted refugee [status] must return back”.
“[They are] going back to Vietnam. We are waiting for the time,” he said. The Montagnards were previously told they would have to leave Cambodia before September 22.
Interior Ministry Undersecretary of State Ouk Kim Lek suggested Prime Minister Hun Sen was still deliberating over the UN appeal, although he added that “the Vietnamese claimed that they will treat them well”.
UNHCR’s assistant regional representative, Alistair Boulton, said via email yesterday that the group was writing again to Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng “to ask that UNHCR be allowed to facilitate the departure of the 29 to a country they are willing to go to and which is willing to accept them”. “Our position and hopes remain unchanged,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said returning the refugees to Vietnam would spark “a storm of criticism” and urged Cambodia not to bow to pressure from the neighbouring government.
“Sok Phal should realize that letting these remaining 29 Montagnard refugees go with UNHCR would not only put the Cambodian government in a good light, but it would also remind Vietnam that it cannot take Cambodia’s interests for granted anymore,” he said in an email.