A group of 13 Montagnard asylum-seekers who appeared to have had their deportation to Vietnam stalled due to U.N. pressure will be sent back today “on a voluntary basis,” according to the U.N.’s refugee agency, a fact a rights worker disputed.
On Sunday, an official from the Interior Ministry’s refugee department said the deportation of 16 Montagnards from Cambodia had been put on hold due to pressure from the UNHCR over the decision to deny them refugee status. However, Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, said on Tuesday that 13 Montagnards would return “on a voluntarily basis” to the country they claim to have fled because of widespread persecution. Yet rights worker Grace Bui, program director for the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, denied they were returning voluntarily. “They’re being told they have to go back,” she said. “I don’t believe anyone would go home voluntarily.”
Kem Sarin, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said he had not been informed of the development. Ms. Bui said she was told by an asylum-seeker in Phnom Penh that those being deported were among the 16 who appeared to have been given a second chance.
“This morning I received a message from one of the asylum-seekers and he told me that…the 13 people are going to be returned to Vietnam tomorrow morning,” Ms. Bui said. “I heard they delayed the departure because of the U.N. intervention and the U.N. tried to pressure the government but this morning I guess it didn’t work.”
The last group told Ms. Bui that if they volunteered to go back, then the U.N. would follow up on them. “If they refuse to go back, they will be forced to go back and the U.N. will not follow up on those cases,” she said. The latest wave of Montagnards—mostly Christians who have long faced religious and political persecution in Vietnam—fleeing into Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province began in late 2014. An initial group of 13 were eventually granted refugee status and are currently in the Philippines awaiting assignment of a third country.
The UNHCR has come under fire from rights groups for its role in repatriating the vast majority of Montagnards whose applications were rejected, although its ability to monitor returnees is greatly restricted by the Hanoi government.