Nearly 100 Montagnard asylum seekers in Ratanakkiri province have signed up for voluntary repatriation and could return to their homes in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in early March, said Nikola Mihajlovic, chief of liaison in Phnom Penh for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mihajlovic said Tuesday about a dozen more people in the Ratanakkiri camp, where the Montagnards have been under UNHCR protection for almost a year, are seeking repatriation.
“These people all hope and dream of something, they are homesick, and they basically realize there isn’t going to be an independent [hill tribe] state,” Mihajlovic said.
A Vietnamese government crackdown on protests in the Central Highlands drove hundreds of Montagnards into Cambodia, where about 1,000 remain under UNHCR protection.
The UNHCR signed a repatriation agreement with Vietnam and Cambodia Jan 21, but that accord has come under fire from US officials concerned it could be used to force Montagnards back to Vietnam, where they could face further persecution.
As part of that agreement, UNHCR teams have already visited the Central Highlands to report on the current situation. “These are going very well; the first visits were an icebreaker,” Mihajlovic said. The UNHCR plans to visit several more Central Highland provinces before the 98 now willing to return can go back.
Mihajlovic said no Montagnards in the UNHCR’s Mondolkiri province camp have agreed to return, though some are thinking about it. “We are not rushing anyone,” he said. “They can always change their minds.”