Despite claiming to have fled widespread persecution, 25 Montagnard asylum-seekers will voluntarily be sent back to Vietnam on Monday, assuming Interior Minister Sar Kheng approves the move, a ministry official said on Wednesday.
UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, will assist the group in crossing the border after they offered to return having failed assessments for refugee status, said Houl Sarith, head of the refugee department’s application office for asylum-seekers at the ministry.
“Those people were not forced to leave Cambodia, but they volunteered to return home,” Mr. Sarith said. “UNHCR made a request to the refugee department asking to send 25 Montagnards back to Vietnam soon, and we already submitted the proposal to Samdech Kralahorm Sar Kheng.”
The group was expected to cross into Vietnam through Ratanakkiri province’s O’yadaw border checkpoint, he said.
The latest repatriation of Montagnards would leave fewer than 70 in Phnom Penh. More than 50 fled their temporary U.N.-funded accommodation last month and are now hiding in an outer suburb of Bangkok.
A pregnant woman and her husband are currently being detained by the immigration department, with officials claiming they are to be deported because they are not Montagnards and they were caught while attempting to flee. The Montagnard Assistance Project has contradicted this, claiming the couple were detained at their apartment due to government fears they would also flee to Thailand. They were not among the returning 25.
Mr. Sarith said some of those remaining had passed their refugee assessment, while others had failed the process, and plans were in motion to send them back as well. He could not give totals for either group.
Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which has been providing assistance to the Montagnards, confirmed that the group of 25 would be repatriated on Monday after asking to return home.
“As I understand it, the next group of UNHCR-monitored repatriation will be on the 24th. Some of them called us and asked us, saying that they wanted to go back,” she said.
“Some people who were rejected decided to appeal and some people who were rejected just decided to accept it and say: ‘Enough is enough, let’s go back,’” she added.
Although she had not spoken in-depth with the Montagnards regarding their feelings on returning to Vietnam, Ms. Coghlan said they were likely exasperated with their situation in Phnom Penh, where most have been penned up for more than a year.
“I think they’re finding the presence of the police every day at the accommodation site a bit intimidating—or highly intimidating—depending on the police, and so maybe some of them are glad to get out of it,” she said.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, said in an email that she didn’t have exact numbers or dates available, but that “facilitated returns will continue to take place in line with agreed parameters.”
The latest wave of Montagnards escaping to Cambodia started in late 2014, with the asylum-seekers claiming to have been subjected to persecution and surveillance for practicing a form of Protestantism not officially sanctioned by Hanoi and for their support of the U.S. in the Second Indochina War.
The first group of 13 was granted refugee status, and they are currently in the Philippines waiting to be settled in a third country.