Refugee advocates have welcomed plans from the United Nations to relocate 36 Montagnard asylum seekers to a third country, but the Cambodian government yesterday remained silent as to why it has so far failed to cooperate.
The 36 are part of a wave of more than 200 Montagnards – a mostly Christian ethnic minority hailing from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – who fled across the border to Cambodia in 2014 and 2015.
UNHCR’s Vivian Tan yesterday confirmed the body was “seeking solutions” outside Cambodia on “an exceptional basis and in consultation with the Cambodian authorities”.
“We believe these 36 individuals have established good grounds for fearing persecution and should not be returned to Viet Nam,” she said via email yesterday.
“This is a work in progress and there are no further details at this point.”
UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith on Friday said she was “concerned” for the fate of the 36 Montagnards – whom she said were in need of international protection due to the “seriousness of their asylum claims” – and urged Cambodian authorities to ensure they would not be returned to Vietnam.
“The Government of Cambodia has to date not agreed to facilitate their transit to a safe third country,” Smith said, adding she had brought the matter up with Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn, who “took note”.
Several officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior’s Refugee Department either were unaware of the case or did not respond to calls and messages on Friday and yesterday.
The news of a possible safe haven for some comes at the same time as one of their fellow asylum seekers – an ethnic Ede, one of several groups that comprise the Montagnards – is set to be forcibly deported after his asylum claim was rejected.
Uk Hai Sela, head of immigration investigations at the Ministry of Interior, said the man, who was bundled into a van last Thursday, remains on Cambodian soil and is detained at the immigration office.
Hai Sela denied the man was a Montagnard, simply maintaining “he is Vietnamese”.
“Tomorrow the Vietnamese Embassy’s secretary of consular affairs will come and talk to him, and if he is Vietnamese, they will give him the travel document,” he said, denying any knowledge of the status of the other 35 Montagnard asylum seekers.
Grace Bui, of the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, said she had spoken to some asylum seekers who were “very happy” about the UNHCR’s intentions.
“Finally they feel there is hope for them,” she said.
But she doubted the Cambodian government – which has historically cosy ties to Vietnam – would be easily persuaded to release the refugees to a third country.
“The Cambodian government doesn’t want to do anything to upset the Vietnamese government,” she said. “We need to put more pressure on them.”
She said the Montagnards were dispossessed of their land, had their churches burned down, were thrown into prison and were even tortured.
Viet Nguyen, a Vietnamese human rights defender, said Montagnards routinely faced religious and political persecution due, at least in part, to their support for the US during the Vietnam War.
“It is inhuman to send them back to Vietnam, because I know they will be imprisoned or even [end up] dead in prison,” he said. “The Vietnamese government will not arrest them right away, but they will wait for couple of months, or even a year and then they will arrest them all.”
More than 130 Montagnards in Cambodia were “voluntarily” returned to Vietnam by the UNHCR after their asylum claims were rejected, but some Montagnards and refugee advocates claim the asylum seekers were given “no choice” in the purportedly voluntary process.
Those fears were fuelled last week when it was revealed that Vietnamese authorities visited the families of Montagnard asylum seekers in Vietnam and allegedly forced them to write letters encouraging their loved ones to return home.
Since the influx of asylum seekers, three Montagnards have had their claims approved and were allowed to resettle in Cambodia, while 13 were recognised by Cambodia as refugees and sent to the Philippines last year. However, 50 more fled to Thailand in April, fearing their asylum claims would be rejected.