Nearly four dozen Montagnards voluntarily left a UN camp in Mondolkiri for Vietnam late Thursday in what officials with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are calling a “spontaneous” repatriation.
“[The 43] expressed their wish to return and signed statements to that effect,” Nikola Mihajlovic, the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh chief, said Friday.
“This is completely natural as long as we are convinced and satisfied no one is being forced, and this is our understanding…it is a free choice.”
A total of 119 Montagnards have left UNHCR camps in Cambodia and returned to Vietnam’s Central Highlands as part of an effort to repatriate asylum seekers who fled across the border.
A little more than 1,000 Montagnards remain under the UNHCR’s protection.
Mihajlovic said the UNHCR will lodge a request with the Vietnamese to visit 15 asylum seekers who were the first to return home with the hopes that this would also give the agency access to the others.
Despite signing an agreement in January in which access to the Central Highlands was a key provision, the Vietnamese have refused to allow the UNHCR to enter Montagnard villages.
This remains the major obstacle in restarting the repatriation process, which stalled last month. Talks this week between the UNHCR, Cambodia and Vietnam failed to find a solution, with Vietnam demanding more Montagnards return before it would come back to the negotiating table.
Mihajlovic said no other asylum seekers have said they will go back, but that it is an option they are all aware of.
“To say there aren’t any would not be correct, but to say there are might also not be correct,” he said.
According to Mihajlovic, there have been no new arrivals in the UNHCR’s camps since 63 Montagnards were forcibly deported March 2, though Cambodian authorities have assured the agency that “we won’t have any more deportations.”
But at the same time, Cambodian police officials still say they will ask the UNHCR to hand over nine Montagnards in the Mondolkiri camp who they claim are really Cambodians and should not have the UNHCR’s protection.
Mihajlovic said he is aware of this but has not seen any formal request from the Cambodians.
“We are looking into these cases, but the UNHCR doesn’t ascertain nationality,” he said.
The police have said Cambodian district and commune officials want the nine back simply to put their farms back in order.
But observers fear this is a Vietnamese-driven attempt to target the camp’s leadership and demoralize what has been a Montagnard population that has resolutely refused to return to Vietnam.