Eight of the 14 ethnic Vietnamese hilltribe refugees remaining in Cambodian custody boarded a plane at Pochentong Airport Wednesday night, beginning the long flight to the US and asylum.
Wearing military fatigues and carrying a few small bags, the eight men dashed the last 50 meters to their Thai Airways flight, hiding their faces from the flashes of a few Cambodian photographers.
Security was light, and only a few military, police, Cambodian and US Embassy officials watched them taxi down a dark, empty runway.
This is the second group of 24 ethnic hilltribe members from Vietnam’s Central Highlands arrested in Mondolkiri province three weeks ago to leave for the US.
The two dozen claimed they were seeking political asylum from their homeland and were granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, despite extensive pleas from their home government for them to return.
The Vietnamese government claimed the group had illegally crossed into Cambodia and should be returned.
But in a move that apparently reversed years of bowing to the wishes of his eastern neighbors, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the refugees should be granted asylum in a third country—the US.
“We regret the decision of the Cambodian government,” said Chu Dong Loc, an attache with Vietnam’s embassy in Phnom Penh. Vietnam has repeatedly asked that the group be repatriated, saying they had been mistakenly classified as refugees by the UNHCR.
The first group of 10 refugees left April 12, in what US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann called a “very smooth, routine…process.”
What these refugees will encounter when they arrive in the US is uncertain. Having no families there, they will likely be handed over to NGOs, state agencies or church groups who will carry them through the process of repatriation, said one human rights worker, asking not to be named.
It is “quite possible” that all or some of the refugees will wind up in the US state of North Carolina, where there is an enclave of other members of their ethnic group who were brought to the US in the early 1990s, Wiedemann said.
No matter where their final destination, they will be well taken care of, taught English if necessary and helped toward integration in US society, he said. “These folks are good; they’ve been doing this a long time,” he said, referring to agencies that help refugees.
The refugees—who speak neither Khmer nor Vietnamese—will have years of integration ahead of them. It will be “very, very difficult, to say the least,” as they adapt to a new society and culture, Wiedemann said.
It’s unclear how Hun Sen’s decision will affect Cambodian-Vietnamese relations, which have historically been tight. Senate President Chea Sim, who is also president of Cambodia’s ruling CPP, traveled to Vietnam Wednesday to attend that country’s party congress, said Chea Song, Chea Sim’s Cabinet chief. Officials did not say if the refugee issue would be discussed.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)