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Officials go to Vietnam to ‘force’ Montagnard refugees’ relatives to appeal for their return

Police vehicles sit outside a home in Phnom Penh where Montagnard asylum seekers have been staying. Post staff
Police vehicles sit outside a home in Phnom Penh where Montagnard asylum seekers have been staying. Post staff

Officials go to Vietnam to ‘force’ Montagnard refugees’ relatives to appeal for their return

A team from the Interior Ministry last week went to Vietnam and visited the families of at least two Montagnards who are pursuing refugee status in Phnom Penh, with one asylum seeker saying his daughter was “forced” to write a letter asking him to return home – an account denied by an official.

Reached via translators yesterday, two Montagnards in the capital, who are appealing a decision to reject their refugee applications, said Cambodian officials from the ministry’s Refugee Department had visited their relatives, together with Vietnamese police, whom the asylum seekers accuse of persecution.

In responses to questions provided by The Post and conveyed by a translator, one of the men, Kpa Y Rin, said the officers from both countries arrived at his daughter’s house on the afternoon of August 11.

Rin – who is in his 40s and said he fled to Cambodia in 2015 with his wife after serving a 10-year prison sentence for leading a demonstration for religious freedom – said the delegation “forced” the 21-year-old to write a letter.

He said she willingly wrote the first section saying she missed her parents and attesting to her wellbeing, but was told to ask them to “come back”, and to state that the Vietnamese authorities would “not persecute” the pair.

Rin said he remained fearful of ill-treatment if he returned, saying he was “scared” he would be put back in jail. “I will not go back at all,” he said.

Another Montagnard living in Phnom Penh, who requested anonymity, also said officials from both countries had visited his family in Vietnam’s Central Highlands last week.

“It appears that they went to force our families to tell us to return, but I have no thoughts of returning,” he said, via a translator.

However, Mom Sophanarith, the deputy chief of the Refugee Department, which comes under the General Department of Immigration, rejected that relatives were “forced” to beckon their loved ones home.

Sophanarith, who was part of the delegation, said they had visited one home where a child had provided a letter for their parents in Phnom Penh that referred to their work to pay off a bank loan.

However, he added, he “did not know” the full contents of the letter.

“I did not read it,” he said.Starting in 2015, more than 200 Montagnards – a mostly Christian mountain tribe hailing from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – fled to Cambodia, complaining of religious and political persecution in their homeland.

Just three have been granted asylum in Cambodia, and another 13 were recognised as refugees and sent to the Philippines.

Scores more, however, have been “voluntarily” returned to Vietnam with assistance from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

Most recently, 13 were taken back last week – with one traveller’s account calling into question the voluntary nature of the repatriation – leaving an estimated 39 in the capital.

Sophanarith said that the team visited the families of four Montagnards who had returned to their homes and found no problems.

“They are living and working at their farms normally; nobody mistreats them,” he said.

Speaking yesterday, Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been assisting the Montagnards, questioned the officials’ visit to the Central Highlands, particularly the decision to approach Rin’s daughter.

“If a 21-year-old was confronted by Vietnamese police and Cambodian police officials and asked to write a letter to her father seeking asylum in Cambodia, one could not rule out intimidation,” Coghlan said.

“Some might characterise the visit of Cambodian police to the area that the refugees came from as due diligence, however the fact that they were accompanied by the Vietnamese police, whom the refugees say have intimidated, imprisoned and tortured them, makes it look very dubious.”

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