23 Montagnards Return Home Without Violence

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.

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