Twenty-three Montagnards were returned peacefully to Vietnam on Friday in an operation that stood in stark contrast to the forced deportation of rejected asylum-seekers in July, when police entered a refugee facility in Phnom Penh, hitting some Montagnards and reportedly shocking them with electric batons, refugee workers said.
Friday’s group included 20 refugees returning voluntarily and a family of three rejected asylum-seekers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement Monday.
“All returnees were greeted warmly by Vietnamese officials at the border, provided with lunch, medical checks if necessary, and reassurance that they would be well-treated back in their home villages,” the UNHCR said.
A Jesuit Refugee Service official said the group left the Site 2 facility in Phnom Penh peacefully at about 8:30 am, without an excessive police presence.
“In cases of voluntary repatriation, there’s never a big police presence,” Anne Peeters, JRS legal officer said Tuesday. “These were people who signed up to go to Vietnam,” she said.
Peeters added that the group was driven to Bavet border crossing in Svay Rieng province.
The UNHCR said in its statement that increasingly regular visits to the Central Highlands show that returnees are receiving help to reintegrate and are well-treated.
“The sheer scale of distances we have to travel to visit returnees in their homes, often in very inaccessible and isolated locations, makes monitoring a very time-intensive operation,” the statement quoted Hasim Utkan, UNHCR regional representative, as saying.
“But, it’s very reassuring to see the returnees are treated as victims, not culprits, by the local authorities. They almost all have land, and are getting positive help to restart their lives,” he said.
Utkan said he understood that many of the returnees believed they would get more land if they could reach the UNHCR in Cambodia.
“This is very sad. There is something ethically wrong in starting these kind[s] of unfounded rumors which place people at risk,” Utkan said.
In an e-mail last month, Kay Reibold, project development specialist with the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, said the UNHCR may not be acknowledging how serious the situation in the Central Highlands is, adding that she did not believe the refugee agency’s monitoring was working.
“There seems to be an unwillingness from UNHCR to acknowledge the actual country conditions in the Central Highlands,” Reibold wrote on Monday.
Following the violent July 20 removal from the Site 1 facility in Phnom Penh, the US-based Refugees International said many of the group should have been granted refugee status, and Amnesty International said some of the group may be at risk of torture in Vietnam.
In a statement received Tuesday, the US-based Montagnard Foundation called on the US and the European Commission to investigate why the UNHCR is unable to freely fulfill its mission to protect asylum-seekers in Cambodia.
“The situation is getting worse and worse, and the UNHCR appears unable and unwilling to protect the Montagnards,” the Montagnard Foundation said.
In a Monday e-mail, Kok Ksor of the foundation responded angrily to Chea Bun Thoeun, deputy police chief of Ratanakkiri province, who said last week that he had informed villagers in the province’s O’Yadaw district that they will be prosecuted for human trafficking if they assist Montagnards entering Cambodia.
Kok Ksor said Chea Bun Thoeun should look closer to home if he wanted to stop human trafficking.
“Cambodia and Vietnam are countries listed among those where human trafficking of women and children is more rampant, and these governments have been accused many times of not being willing to stop such criminal activities,” Kok Ksor wrote.
He added that prosecuting villagers for helping Montagnards would breach the Refugee Convention.
The UNHCR in Phnom Penh said that it was not in a position to comment on Chea Bun Thoeun’s comments, or whether prosecuting villagers who help Montagnard asylum-seekers would breach the international convention.