After more than a year stuck between two worlds, 50 Montagnard refugees left Monday for the US, where they will be resettled after fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
The Montagnards were the first of more than 900 refugees who will be resettled in the coming weeks. They arrived at Pochentong Airport dressed in new pants and shirts, and made the brief walk from the buses to the airport terminal under the gaze of more than two dozen police and military police.
“It all went very smoothly,” said one US Embassy official who was on hand to watch the first stages of a journey that will take the Montagnards—few of whom, if any, had been outside the Central Highlands prior to fleeing their villages—through Bangkok and then on to the US, where they will eventually resettle in the US state of North Carolina.
Other groups of about 50 Montagnards each are expected to leave for the US throughout the week. The entire resettlement should be completed by mid-July, said Mohammad Alnassery, officer in charge for the International Organization for Migration, which is supervising the transfer.
Monday’s departure marks the end—at least temporarily—of a refugee crisis that began 15 months ago as hundreds of Montagnards began fleeing a government crackdown on hill tribe protests in the Central Highlands.
At one time more than 1,000 Montagnards were seeking shelter with the UN High Commission for Refugees in two of the agency’s camps along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
Hundreds more were reported in the jungles of Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, and human rights groups estimate that as many as 550 asylum seekers might have been forcibly deported during the last year before reaching the UNHCR.
With the hopes that those under its care could return home, the UNHCR signed a repatriation deal with Vietnam and Cambodia in late January.
But the deal was abandoned two months later following Vietnam’s refusal to let UNHCR staff into the Central Highlands to monitor returns.
The agency also complained of continuing harassment by Vietnamese authorities, who at one point stormed one of the agency’s camps with hundreds of people claiming to be family of the Montagnards inside.
Despite protests from Vietnam, Prime Minister Hun Sen eventually agreed to let the Montagnards at the UNHCR camps go to the US, which early last year resettled at least 38 Montagnards who were some of the first to cross into Cambodia with allegations of abuse, land-grabbing and religious discrimination.
Interviews with refugees during the drive from Mondolkiri to Phnom Penh—where they were processed for resettlement—said they were happy to be leaving the camps that had been home for so many months, but unsure about their new lives in the US.
“It will not be easy for them in the Unites States, and many are heartsick about having to leave their families and their homeland behind,” said a representative of the US-based Human Rights Watch via e-mail.
“But for most, there was no choice.”