Amid fears of a push to get Montagnard asylum seekers to return home prematurely, a high-level delegation of Cambodian and Vietnamese officials is scheduled to visit the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Mondolkiri camp for asylum seekers today.
Interior Ministry officials and their Vietnamese counterparts will view the camp, according to an Interior Ministry staff member who did not want to be named.
But it’s unclear if they will speak with any of the approximately 565 Montagnards living there under UNHCR protection since fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands during the last year.
Asylum seekers there remain suspicious of Vietnamese authorities, and several camp residents said late last year Vietnamese “agents” have repeatedly entered the camp to spy on them.
A similar delegation visited the UNHCR’s Montagnard camp in Ratanakkiri province—where about 520 asylum seekers live—last year, according to observers.
“There have been reports of Cambodian security officials escorting Montagnards from Vietnam to the sites in order to have New Year’s visits with families,” one observer said. “But another agenda appears to be to put pressure on refugees in the camps to return.”
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, who has criticized UNHCR’s repatriation agreement, called reports of the delegation visit “disturbing.”
“It would be highly improper for Vietnamese officials to be entering that camp. The obvious possibility is they would be strongarming or potentially using threats linked to the asylum seekers families back home…it could compromise the entire process of protection,” the ambassador said.
Fifteen Montagnards left Ratanakkiri for their Central Highlands village Tuesday in the first round of repatriations organized under an agreement signed by UNHCR, Cambodia and Vietnam last month.
But so far, none of the Montagnards living in Mondolkiri have agreed to return home.
State media quoted a spokesperson with Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry taking UNHCR to task Tuesday for not moving repatriations along fast enough.
“Vietnam finds it imperative to draw UNHCR’s attention to its delay in repatriating the ethnic compatriots to Vietnam, thus failing to fulfill its commitments…UNHCR repatriated only 15 people on 19 February, 2002, despite its earlier notification to Vietnam that more than 100 people had wanted to come back…,” the spokesperson said.
A statement from Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Thursday said that Cambodia and Vietnam have agreed to return the Montaganrds before the start of this year’s rainy season.
Journalists allowed into the Central Highlands this week ahead of the first repatriations reported Montagnard families there were afraid for the safety of relatives who might come back.
Weeping family members of the refugees who met Tuesday with foreign journalists during a government-sponsored tour of the Central Highlands spoke of constant police surveillance, restricted religious activities and fears about government retaliation against returnees.
Saying the Montagnards were informed of the “realities” of returning to Vietnam, UN officials have insisted repatriations from Cambodia would continue, despite fears by the refugees’ families.
“From a UNHCR standpoint, they are making an informed and voluntary decision to return,” said Indrika Ratwatte, an official with UNHCR. “What we hear is what we tell them. They are very well aware of these realities as well.”
(Additional reporting by the Associated Press)