Vietnam is “ready to receive” the more than 200 Montagnards currently seeking asylum in Cambodia who face forced repatriation if they do not return within three months, according to the UN refugee agency.
Vivian Tan, a regional spokesperson for UNHCR, said the Vietnamese government had given assurances that the Montagnards – an indigenous group from Vietnam’s central highlands – would not be mistreated.
They fled to Cambodia in small groups over the past year, alleging persecution.
Vietnam “has said it is ready to receive all Montagnard asylum seekers back, and provided assurances it will not discriminate against or punish them.
It has also provided assurances that UNHCR will be able to visit them after their return home,” she said.
The agency’s comments came after the Interior Ministry said Friday that it had imposed a three-month deadline on the Montagnards, who are yet to have their asylum claims registered or assessed, to return to Vietnam or be forcibly repatriated.
Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government had asked the refugee agency to assist the Montagnards, whom he classed as “economic migrants”, in returning before the deadline expires.
Tan yesterday said UNHCR does “not support involuntary returns”.
But, she added, while the body does “not usually get involved in the return of people who were not registered as asylum-seekers”, it was prepared to make an exception and “facilitate the return of individuals provided that it is based on a free and informed decision”.
She said the agency continued to “urge the responsible authorities” to register all of the Montagnard asylum seekers currently living in limbo in Phnom Penh.
Since October, hundreds of Montagnards have fled to Cambodia. Just 13 have had their claims assessed and have since been determined as refugees. Dozens have been deported.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said Vietnam’s assurances could not be trusted.
“Hanoi issued the same sorts of false promises to entice back Montagnards who fled to Cambodia to escape violent crackdowns in the central highlands in 2001 and 2004, and those who returned faced interrogations, intimidation, and in some cases torture – just as some who were forced back by the Cambodian government earlier this year,” he explained.
“The Montagnards have learned their lessons about bogus Vietnamese pledges – now UNHCR also needs to recognise that Vietnam is not trustworthy in this regard, and stand clear of any involvement in Montagnard returns.”