Faced with hundreds of Montagnard asylum-seekers who had streamed out of the jungles of northern Cambodia during 2004, officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Cambodia and Vietnam reached a tentative agreement on their fates in Hanoi on Jan 25.
In negotiations, during which the three agreed on the need to “strengthen cooperation and coordination,” they charted out an orderly process to repatriate to Vietnam Montagnards who had not been granted refugee status. Television cameras rolled, and both Cambodia and the UNHCR dubbed the meeting—which also covered solutions for recognized refugees—a “fine success.”
Late last month, some of the implications of that agreement were demonstrated in decidedly undiplomatic circumstances, throwing into question the UN HCR’s cooperation with one government that refuses to offer refugees long-term asylum, and another that Montagnards are fleeing from.
At about 6 am on July 20, police, some of whom were carrying AK-47s, sealed off the road leading up to the Site 1 refugee facility in Phnom Penh. The UNHCR had reportedly informed Montagnards at the facility the previous afternoon that they would be deported first thing that morning.
Several truckloads of police drove through a roadblock holding back reporters, and police wielding batons entered the facility jointly run by the UNHCR and the government.
Police hit some Montagnards who did not want to leave, before physically forcing them onto buses and escorting 94 of them back to Vietnam, the UNHCR in Phnom Penh said at the time.
Some of the Montagnards screamed while others tried to jump over the compound wall, the UNHCR said. Relief workers said police hit Montagnards with electric batons.
In the wake of the operation, some observers are asking whether the UNHCR’s relationship with Vietnam and Cambodia is compromising its commitment to the well-being of Montagnards who have sought its protection.
“We believe the UNHCR in Cambodia is in the hands of the Hun Sen government,” Kok Ksor of the US-based Montagnard Foundation said in an e-mail message on Tuesday, adding that Montagnards have lost faith that the UNHCR will protect them. “We realize that the UNHCR is hamstrung.” Vietnam has “proven over and over that it cannot be trusted with UNHCR agreements,” Kok Ksor said. “We believe this is…completely irresponsible to even consider letting our people go back to Vietnam until there are international monitors in place in Vietnam permanently,” he wrote.
On July 29, UNHCR press spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis defended the July 20 operation and denied that the UNHCR had witnessed people being beaten during the forced deportation.
“We did not observe anyone being beaten, kicked, or electric batons being used to shock people,” Pagonis said in Geneva, adding that UNHCR Regional Representative Hasim Utkan was set to meet with the returnees in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
“It is our firm impression that [Cambodian authorities] managed the return with proper restraint,” she said, adding that it is normal procedure to return people who have not been granted refugee status, and that it is not a violation of international law.
Cooperating with governments is a necessity for the UNHCR, said Inna Gladkova, the organization’s associate protection officer.
“The UNHCR can only exercise protection in any country with the government’s support, because asylum is provided by the government first of all…because the UNHCR doesn’t have its own land,” Gladkova said.
Before the January agreement was reached, the UNHCR had become concerned that a growing number of Montagnards appeared to mistakenly believe the UNHCR could help them get back their confiscated lands in Vietnam.
Of the Montagnards who recently entered Cambodia, 118 have left for the US, eight for Canada and 23 for Finland, Gladkova said, adding that 43 people have been voluntarily repatriated to Vietnam this year.
Refugees International believes the UNHCR put rejected refugees at risk in the lead-up to the deportation by using inappropriate language. The UNHCR encouraged the government to do what it wanted with Montagnards who had not received refugee status by stating that it was not concerned about their futures, Lionel Rosenblatt, Refugees International president emeritus, said in a telephone interview from the US. A UNHCR official said in April that the organization had no responsibility for a group of rejected refugees handed over to the Cambodian government, and that it was up to the government to decide what to do with them.
“In our view the UNHCR had a duty to maintain a certain level of protection and responsibility,” even if a group has not been granted refugee status, Rosenblatt said.
He also criticized the UNHCR for its unwillingness to link international monitoring to any return of Montagnards to the Central Highlands.
“They’ve proceeded as if [international monitoring] was there, and for most of us in the field this is…very frustrating and perplexing,” Rosenblatt said.
Earlier this year, considerably smaller groups of Montagnards were voluntarily returned to Vietnam from Phnom Penh.
Human Rights Watch said late last month that during visits to the Central Highlands, a Vietnamese UNHCR official briefly met with returnees, but did so in the presence of police and government officials, making it impossible for returnees to speak freely.
“I don’t think that’s monitoring by any stretch of the imagination,” Rosenblatt said. “The UNHCR says it’s now trying to put international monitoring [in place], but it’s a little late.”
The July 20 operation is not the first time Cambodian authorities have reportedly taken Montagnards out of a refugee facility in the presence of the UNHCR.
On Jan 9, a man who appeared to be Ksor Choi—a Montagnard who had been under surveillance by Vietnamese authorities and was reportedly detained, beaten and released in Vietnam in November—tried to seek help at a refugee facility in Phnom Penh, Human Rights Watch said at the time.
Police refused to let him in, and UNHCR staff were not there as it was the weekend, Human Rights Watch said. The police called their superiors, who arrived, picked the man up and took him away.
Ksor Choi’s wife Kpa H’Seo and their daughters H’Ravi and H’Riva arrived at the facility shortly after, by which time UNHCR staff were present.
But police insisted they be removed from the shelter so police could interview them first, Human Rights Watch said. The four were then held at a Phnom Penh guest house for several days by a police official who spoke Vietnamese, before being taken back to Vietnam.
“This is a flagrant violation not only of the Refugee Convention but of the Convention Against Torture,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director, said in an e-mail message. “This is the first time, to our knowledge, that Montagnard asylum-seekers who had appeared at the UNHCR offices in Phnom Penh for assistance—whom the UNHCR knew about—disappeared right under their noses,” Adams said.
In February, the UNHCR’s cooperation with the Cambodian authorities was again in question, following reports that officials in Ratanakkiri province had deported six Montagnards to Vietnam after allegedly being able to locate them through UNHCR information.
According to a written report by local human rights group Adhoc, the five men and one woman were driven to the Vietnamese border by Bokeo district officials on Jan 31. They had arrived in Seung commune’s Chet village five minutes after UNHCR officials, who had been waiting to meet them, had left for the day at about 1:25 pm. Government officials “knew the exact place [where the Montagnards were] because they cooperate with the UNHCR,” Adhoc provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar said at the time.
Several days after the deportation, UNHCR officials in Phnom Penh said they were uncertain of exactly what happened to the six people. “There was a plan to try and rescue them, but the…mechanism failed,” said a senior UNHCR official who did not give his name.
“There are some instances when local authorities will make some mistakes,” the UNHCR official said, adding that Vietnam had pledged not to prosecute returning Montagnards for fleeing Vietnam.
The UNHCR is in a difficult position because it must cooperate with a government that does not want the Montagnards to be here, said Thun Saray, president of Adhoc.
“They have some difficulties with our government, because our government doesn’t like, from the beginning, for refugees to come to Cambodia….They make a lot of obstacles for the UNHCR’s work,” Thun Saray said.
The UNHCR “[has] to take a soft, soft approach with the government,” he said. “If not, they’ll be banned from Cambodia, stopped from going to the provinces to see the refugees.” Adhoc informs the UNHCR when Montagnards arrive in Ratanakkiri province, but it can sometimes take several weeks before the UNHCR gets government permission and makes it up to the province, Adhoc said. In the interval, police sometimes scour villages looking for the asylum-seekers, though they have been unable to find them, Thun Saray said.
“Sometimes [the UNHCR is] not very active to push the government to provide authorization to go to the province,” he said. “The fault is from the government because they don’t like them to go the province…They delay, delay.”
Long Visalo, the Foreign Affairs Ministry secretary of state who attended the Hanoi meeting on behalf of Cambodia, refused to discuss the government’s relationship with the UNHCR.
One senior Interior Ministry official said the relationship remains good, and that everything is going according to plan.
“So far the [January agreement] has been closely implemented,” he said Tuesday. “The UNHCR and the government work very closely.”
Cambodia has enough problems with illegal logging, land disputes and unemployment without having to worry about the Montagnards as well, he added.
“They’re caused by Vietnam, they’re the responsibility of Vietnam,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of hearing the Montagnards are running” away from the Central Highlands, he added. “Don’t make those Montagnards run around…and start blaming Cambodians,” he said.
The official added the US should help smooth out the tensions in the Central Highlands as it helped create the problem by using the Montagnards to fight against Hanoi during the US-Vietnamese war.
Where the UNHCR plans to take its relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam next remains to be seen.
Late last month, a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the UNHCR dated July 26 was posted in Site 2 in Phnom Penh.
It warned Montagnards who have received refugee status but don’t want to relocate to a third country or go back to Vietnam that they have only one month to change their minds.
“The Montagnards as mentioned above are not permitted to stay in Cambodia. Therefore the Royal Government of Cambodia will transport them back to Vietnam after one month,” the letter reads.
As of Tuesday, there were 443 recognized refugees in Phnom Penh, with 39 of them refusing to resettle, Gladkova said. The number refusing resettlement was expected to have decreased by this weekend, she said, adding: “The solution is available for the taking.”
“We are not going to speculate about what may or may not happen,” when the month runs out, Gladkova said.
“The issues are being discussed among concerned parties, including the UNHCR, at the highest level,” she said, adding that the UNHCR is keeping the Montagnards informed of all the options available to them.
But the letter has prompted alarm amongst some human rights and refugee workers. Denise Coghlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Service, said late last month that she was concerned the UNHCR would have to become involved in the forced repatriation of recognized refugees.
Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group Licadho, said in an e-mail message that any ultimatum leading to the involuntary return of recognized refugees at risk of being abused and tortured in Vietnam is in breach of Cambodia’s fundamental obligations under the refugee convention.
Human Rights Watch also voiced concern. “It is completely unacceptable for UNCHR and the international community to stand by as the Cambodian government threatens to forcibly-and probably violently-deport recognized refugees to Vietnam,” a Human Rights Watch official wrote in an e-mail message. (Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)