Some of the 25 Montagnards who began an uncertain trek to Vietnam on Monday are refuting assertions by the Cambodian government and the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) that they volunteered to return to the country from which they claim to have fled due to systematic persecution.
The group left its U.N.-funded accommodations in Phnom Penh for Ratanakkiri province in the company of government and UNHCR officials, said Houl Sarith, head of the refugee department’s application office for asylum-seekers at the Interior Ministry.
“Our team is now traveling to Ratanakkiri province with the 25 Montagnard people,” he said. The departure leaves about 70 Montagnard asylum-seekers in Cambodia.
Chea Bunthoeun, deputy Ratanakkiri provincial police chief, said he was cooperating with Vietnamese officials to hand the Montagnards over this morning.
The Cambodian government and the UNHCR have said the group volunteered to return to Vietnam’s Central Highlands—where the Montagnards say they are subjected to widespread religious and political oppression because they are Christians who supported the U.S. during the Second Indochina War—after failing in their applications for refugee status.
However, some of those returning to Vietnam tell a different story.
Replying to a reporter’s questions via Grace Bui, program director for the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, and Y-Lhul Buonya, who conducts investigations for the U.S.-based Montagnards Support Group, some of the group denied they were returning of their own volition.
“I didn’t want to go back to Vietnam, but I was forced to go back. I wanted to stay in Cambodia,” said a 37-year-old man who was returning with his wife and two children.
“I’m very scared right now, because I know that as soon as I go back to Vietnam, the Vietnamese government will punish and destroy me and my family,” he said.
The man, who requested anonymity to protect him from possible repercussions, told Ms. Bui that a U.N. official twice visited the group and told them that the refugee agency would not offer any assistance if they refused to sign a form agreeing to return to Vietnam.
“If I signed the paper agreeing to return to Vietnam then the U.N. would help me and follow up with me in Vietnam,” he said. “If I refused to sign, then the U.N. wouldn’t do anything for me.”
Speaking from his home in the U.S. on Monday, Mr. Buonya —a Montagnard who escaped from the Central Highlands into Cambodia in 2004 and was granted asylum in the U.S.—recounted similar stories after putting a reporter’s questions to three Montagnards en route to Vietnam on Monday, including the same man Ms. Bui interviewed.
After the group was told by authorities last month that they would eventually be returned to Vietnam, Mr. Buonya said those interviewed claimed both U.N. and Cambodian authorities refused to sign a letter asking the Vietnamese government to ensure their safety.
“They said, ‘If the Cambodian authorities want to send us back, we need the letter from the Cambodian authorities signed for us and we will keep that letter with us when we go back. Then the Vietnamese government can’t persecute us when we go back home,’” Mr. Buonya said.
“Cambodia replied to them and said they cannot do it. The U.N. also said no.”
Ms. Bui was told the same story.
Mr. Buonya called the U.N.’s claim that the 25 “volunteered” to go back to Vietnam disingenuous, as they were warned they needed to leave or face forced eviction.
“Several persons agreed to sign the repatriation letter with the U.N. Why? Because first, the U.N. told them that even if you appeal the application, they will never accept you; they will reject. If you do not sign now, the government of Cambodia will deport you by force,” he said.
“It’s kind of like they use the force of words—heavy words—to scare them. That’s why we’re against that word ‘volunteer,’” he said.
The UNHCR’s “Handbook on Voluntary Repatriation” deals with the issue of the repatriation of refugees, explaining that “voluntariness is the cornerstone of international protection with respect to the return of refugees.”
The handbook states that “a person retaining a well-founded fear of persecution is a refugee, and cannot be compelled to repatriate.”
Mr. Buonya said many Montagnards had lost faith in the U.N.’s desire to help them, which was vastly different to his case in 2004, when he said the U.N. did its utmost to assist his group and protect them.
The UNHCR has generally claimed that it has found no evidence of retaliatory persecution against returnees from Cambodia. However, Mr. Buonya claimed his own conversations with returnees tell a very different story.
“People that went back last year, there was still persecution. They beat them up and they tried to investigate,” he said.
“They asked: ‘What did you guys tell the U.N.? What did you guys tell the Cambodian government?’ They said, ‘Even if the U.N. come to visit, don’t tell the U.N. Keep the secret.’ The Vietnamese threaten them: ‘If you tell, I will kill your whole family.’”
The claims fell much in line with those made by Montagnards interviewed in Bangkok earlier this month who fled Phnom Penh to avoid returning to the Central Highlands and the wrath of the Hanoi government.
Kem Sarin, the spokesman for the immigration department, on Monday reiterated that the Montagnards had returned of their own volition, but directed questions to the UNHCR when asked to elaborate on the definition of “volunteer.”
Addressing the alleged refusal of the government to sign letters informing the Vietnamese government to spare the Montagnards upon their return, Mr. Sarin said the government would never sign such a document.
“We have never signed any documents for sending those people because they entered Cambodia without having documents, so they are able to return home empty-handed,” he said, again putting the responsibility at the feet of the UNHCR.
The UNHCR did not respond to requests for comment.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Cambodia was simply “doing Hanoi’s bidding” and that those returning would be placed under surveillance.
“Vietnam views such flight as a treasonous act, meaning that those Montagnards who are returned enter an environment where they are immediate suspects placed under surveillance by Vietnamese security forces and local officials,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.
“Caught in the middle is UNHCR which aims to prevent Cambodia from refouling Montagnards, but then overstates its ability to effectively offer protection to those returned to highland areas where access for international organizations of any sort are severely restricted by the state,” he said.
“It’s no wonder that the Montagnards feel betrayed at every turn, and effectively abandoned to a cruel fate.”