Hundreds of family members are being bused in from Vietnam’s Central Highlands to visit UN refugee camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces in an attempt to convince relatives to go home, provincial police said.
Twelve buses with 441 family members arrived at the Mondolkiri camp Thursday and ate a meal with the Montagnard asylum seekers living there, said Mondolkiri’s deputy provincial police chief Nhem Vanny.
“They hugged each other and cried when they met. They missed each other for months,” Nhem Vanny said. “We allowed them in to ask how their relatives are. They might ask them to return home with them, but no one is forcing them to do this.”
Five asylum seekers left the camp with their families, Nhem Vanny said, bringing the total number of people to have returned to Vietnam without the UNHCR’s assistance to an estimated 111.
The UNHCR has suspended a voluntary repatriation program.
Only 15 Montagnards returned under the UNHCR program before Vietnam barred the agency’s observation teams from the Central Highlands.
Nikola Mihajlovic, the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh chief, said Thursday he was not aware of the latest returns. He did say “spontaneous” repatriations were not uncommon, and that the UNHCR has so far been satisfied that none of the Montagnards who have returned home since the repatriation deal fell through have been forced to do so.
He said he has written the Cambodian government asking for an explanation about 35 Montagnards reportedly deported last weekend, despite assurances from Cambodia that no more asylum seekers would be forcibly expelled.
Observers have complained that family visits like Thursday’s, which have occurred regularly over the last month, might put pressure on the asylum seekers to return home prematurely.
“We do not like them to do like this; it is forceful. We were told the people sent here were advised to persuade their relatives to come back home,” one observer said.