Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Montagnard groups set to return

Montagnard groups set to return

Montagnard groups set to return

IN a decision that has been strongly criticized, the UN's refugee agency has confirmed

that as many as 109 Montagnard refugees currently in Cambodia's north-east province

of Ratanakkiri will return to Vietnam "imminently". UNHCR said, however,

that the move would definitely not happen this weekend.

In response, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann decried UNHCR's "unseemly haste"

and accused the organization of "a serious dereliction of duty, responsibility

and regard for due process".

He said the US maintained its opposition to the trilateral repatriation agreement

signed between Cambodia, Vietnam and UNHCR January 21. He said it suffered from a

lack of clear details regarding assurances that returnees would not be persecuted,

and further detail on post-repatriation monitoring and inspection.

"My government is even more outraged at the prospect of what we see as an unseemingly

hasty response by UNHCR to repatriate 109 people from Ratanakkiri without even the

most rudimentary pre- and post-return details agreed," Wiedemann added.

Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the UNHCR liaison office in Phnom Penh, told the Post

February 14 that a UNHCR team had spent February 11-13 in Vietnam's Central Highlands

assessing the situation on the ground. The area is the home of the ethnic minority

tribes known collectively as Montagnards.

Mihajlovic said the team would return to Cambodia shortly and inform the refugees,

who have "clearly indicated their wish to return", of its findings. He

said he had "no reservations at all" regarding the deal's provisions on

monitoring the returnees once they were back in Vietnam.

The US ambassador replied that it was "not credible" such investigations

could be carried out satisfactorily in only three days.

"I cannot imagine their investigations will be adequate to counsel on a matter

of life or death, those 109 refugees in Ratanakkiri, or any others for that matter,"

he said. "I expect it would take weeks or months to establish the conditions."

UNHCR's Mihajlovic said it was unclear precisely how many refugees would return at

this stage.

"We have 109 applications, but that doesn't mean 109 will repatriate. They can

change their minds at any moment, so right now we don't know how many will go,"

he said. "I would say that some will return imminently, but there is no rush

- we need time to counsel them."

He said the repatriation would be done to the same standards UNHCR follows around

the world, and pronounced himself "perfectly satisfied" it would proceed

smoothly and according to the agreement.

Wiedemann meanwhile confirmed that the US would take the refugees, "all 1,000

of them", if the preferred options of repatriation (returning to their homes)

or resettlement in the country of asylum (in this case Cambodia) proved unworkable

and they were deemed refugees.

"In that case we would be quite willing to take any and all of them," said

Wiedemann, adding that a senior embassy official was in Ratanakkiri counseling the

refugees on repatriation. He said that the US would not bring up the option of resettlement

in the US at this stage, saying such advice would be "premature".

"However, we heavily counsel them not to go until the international community,

which is the UNHCR, can assure their safety," he said. "We want to ensure

UNHCR carries out its obligations to the international community, for which it works."

A Human Rights Watch representative said there was nothing to gain by fast-tracking

the repatriation.

"That is clear, especially given the fact that all information we have is that

the human rights situation has not changed in the Central Highlands," the representative

said. "The same factors that caused people to flee over the past twelve months

have not changed, as far as we know, particularly the land issue, religious persecution,

official harassment, arrest and imprisonment of people involved in last year's demonstrations."

The Vietnamese government denies the Montagnards have ever been oppressed, and maintains

that the refugees were "deceived" into leaving. It stated that government

policy was to "tolerate all wrongdoings of those who illegally fled, since they

are mere victims".

However, HRW expressed concern that within days of signing the tripartite agreement,

a court in the Vietnamese highlands' town of Gia Lai handed down jail terms of between

three and six years on a group of Montagnards, who had apparently been deported from

Cambodia.

The Vietnamese state newspaper, the People's Army Daily, reported recently that people

had been involuntarily deported from Cambodia, the first confirmation by Vietnam

that refugees had been sent back against their will.

"We have concerns [including] allowing adequate time to brief and counsel those

asylum seekers interested in going back, [and ensuring] basic safeguards are in place

to monitor their situation after return," said HRW.

The refugees fled the Central Highlands region of Vietnam after an uprising February

2001 alleging discrimination, land grabs and religious oppression. Around 1,000 Montagnard

refugees are currently under UNHCR protection in two camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri

provinces.

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