Delays Worry Remaining Montagnard Refugees

Their flight from Vietnam was dangerous, and their lives at refugee camps in Cambodia were arduous. But waiting for a promised resettlement in the US is proving to be the greatest strain for the last group of Montagnard refugees in Phnom Penh.

Destined for new lives in the US, some 765 Montagnard refu­gees have boarded planes in recent months at Pochentong Airport, but uncertainty is weighing heavy on the 141 refugees who now remain in Phnom Penh.

“Most of us are worried. We do not know what will happen to us. We don’t have any information,” a refugee said last weekend on condition of anonymity. “We don’t have any idea if we are staying or going.”

The elation that followed Wash­ington’s deal with Cambo­dia in April to resettle all Mon­tagnard refugees in the US has changed to despondency, the refugee said.

Under the agreement, all 906 refugees—who fled to Cambo­dia’s remote northeastern border provinces after Hanoi launched a police crackdown in the Central Highlands early last year—were supposed to depart Cambodia by the end of June.

Flight availability during June’s World Cup, immigration approval and resettlement arrangements in the US have caused delays for the final group, officials said.

But fear that their chances for resettlement in the US are slipping has caused anxiety among the adult refugees, while boredom and inactivity are taking a psychological toll on the children, the refugee said.

“We are tired. Some people are sick. For one year we don’t have any freedom,” the refugee said.

The final decision on whether the refugees will be allowed to resettle in the US will be made by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in Bangkok, said Mohammad Al-Nassery, program officer at the International Organization of Migration in Phnom Penh.

Al-Nassery said IOM—which organized the resettlement flights to the US for the Montagnard refugees—is waiting to receive clearance from the INS for the remaining 141 refugees.

That will “hopefully” come through early next month, Al-Nassery said.

A US embassy official said on Monday that he hoped the situation would be resolved as soon as possible.

“The delay, if you will, is due not so much to their own situation but to the heavy backlog…. This is a situation repeated elsewhere in the world,” the official said.

INS officials must be satisfied that the refugees qualify for resettlement, said the official, who added that the remaining refugees have not been singled out for a particular reason.

“I’d like to see them move as quickly as possible,” he said.

However, sources close to the refugees note that some suspicion has been thrown over some of the remaining refugees because of two sit-ins that took place at airports in the US state of North Carolina by Montagnard refugees who had just arrived from Cambodia.

Details are scarce on the reasons for the sit-ins—described by a US Embassy official here as “brief” and “resolved very quickly”—but the protests have led to greater INS scrutiny of their resettlement request.

Kok Ksor, head of the US-based Montagnard Foundation Inc, said on Monday he knew nothing about the airport sit-in and has not been informed of the number of refugees resettled in the US.

Officials at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment on Monday, but sources said it would be the UN’s responsibility to resettle in other third countries Montagnard refugees not accepted by the US.

Several of the refugees still in Phnom Penh were earmarked by Hanoi and Cambodian officials as ringleaders of the protests in the Central Highlands. Officials believe that at least one was responsible for helping the asylum seekers cross the Cambodian border.

They are considered the most politically charged of the asylum seekers; Hanoi has allegedly offered a bounty for their capture and deportation back to Vietnam.

Reports of Montagnard asylum seekers entering Cambodia from the Central Highlands ended abruptly earlier this year after Phnom Penh announced it would no longer permit asylum seekers to enter its territory.

In the past month, Cambodian officials have been blasted for their treatment of asylum seekers following accusations that a Vietnamese dissident Buddhist monk was deported back to Vietnam and two members of the Falun Gong movement were deported back to China.

All three allegedly had letters of protection from UNHCR’s Cambodia office. UNHCR officials have refused to comment on the claims.



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