On Tuesday night, just hours before Rmah Y Chok would be sent back to a home he had once fled fearing persecution, his thoughts turned to a well-known biblical tale.
“When I first got rejected, I got really sad,” Chok said through a translator the night before his departure for Vietnam after the Cambodian government denied his request for asylum.
“But I remembered the story from the Bible about Joseph, who was sold into slavery, and that made me feel better,” he continued, referring to the Old Testament story in which Joseph is betrayed by his brothers but is ultimately not forsaken by his God.
“It helped me cope with the problem,” he added.
Chok is one of 13 Montagnards – a mostly Christian mountain tribe minority hailing from Vietnam’s central highlands – who were packed onto a van yesterday morning, headed for the border after their applications for asylum were rejected by the Cambodian government.
Chok, 30, says he arrived in Cambodia in May 2015, along with more than 200 others.
Just three have been granted asylum in Cambodia, and another 13 recognised as refugees were sent to the Philippines. With the latest 13 en route to the Vietnamese border, there are an estimated 39 remaining in Phnom Penh.
Chok says he was a victim of a land grab – in which the Vietnamese government gave permission for a rubber company to seize his farm, he says – but he also faced discrimination based on his religion. Much of the land seized belonged to Montagnards, he said.
“When the company took the land, they asked me to come and sign [a document], but when I went there, I got arrested – they said I went to make trouble,” he said.
He added that he spent a year behind bars in Vietnam. Upon his release, he dreaded being sent back to prison.
“The government did not allow me and my family, my sisters and brothers, to go to church to worship God,” he said.
“They told us to sign a paper saying we would not participate in church anymore, and if we did continue to go to church, they would put us in jail.”
Chok fled with two other Montagnards, both of whom had their claims rejected by the Cambodian government twice before they escaped to Thailand. Chok had not yet received his second rejection, so he waited.
He was interviewed once, about a year ago, with the Cambodian officials taking down his statement in pencil. He doesn’t know if it was altered or if his story was taken down in full. He was asked to thumbprint the document, which he could not read.
His asylum claim was first rejected on January 6 of this year, and again on July 26. At 6pm on Tuesday, he was told he would be leaving Cambodia – his limbo home of the past two years – at 7am the next day for Vietnam.
Chok said he asked authorities if he could see any documents concerning an agreement between Vietnam and Cambodia and the UN on refugees, but says he was refused.
The UN’s refugee agency has said it returned these 13 Montagnards – among them four young children – to Vietnam yesterday “on a voluntary basis”, as it has for more than 120 others so far.
But Chok said that of all the Montagnards he had met in Cambodia, “nobody wanted to go home”.
“They gave me no choice, they told me to go, and that’s it,” he said. “I am very scared to go back ... I’m very afraid to go to jail this time, because I don’t want them to do what they did to me last time.”
UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan yesterday said she was not aware of Chok’s individual situation, “but in general we provide counselling to the rejected asylum seekers before every voluntary return movement”.
“We explain the options – they can choose to return with UNHCR assistance and assurances by the Vietnamese authorities that they will not be punished for illegal departure and that UNHCR will visit them in their homes to check how they’re doing, or eventually come under Cambodian law,” she said.
“They make the decision accordingly. Not everyone necessarily opts to return with our support.”
Further, she added the UNHCR “does not usually get involved in the return of rejected asylum seekers”.
“We are doing so on an exceptional basis for this group [of more than 200 who arrived in 2015] in Cambodia in order to ensure that basic standards are in place for their return and that we can visit them after their return,” she said.
The UNHCR did not ultimately disagree with the Cambodian government’s decision that the 13 Montagnards were not refugees, meaning people who had a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race or religion, among other factors.
The UN Refugee Convention prohibits a country from expelling or returning a refugee “to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, [or] membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
General Tan Sovichea, director of the Refugee Department at the Interior Ministry, could not be reached for comment.
As Chok prepared to sleep on his last night in Cambodia, he was resigned to his impending return, but he also dared to hope. “I want to work freely and freely worship God and I don’t want people to stop me,” he said.
“I cannot see farther than that, at this point, I only know what it is right now.”