The first group of Montagnard refugees is scheduled to leave Cambodia for the US today, a move that marks the end to their yearlong struggle for resettlement in Cambodian refugee camps and the start of new lives in the US.
Fifty Montagnards will leave today for Charlotte, in the US state of North Carolina, and subsequent groups of 50 Montagnards will leave on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, said International Organization for Migration Officer-in-Charge Mohammad Alnassery. He said that about three flights a week through July will take the Montagnards to the US.
By the end of June, at least 700 Montagnards will have been transported to the US and by mid-July the entire resettlement effort will be complete, he said.
“None of the refugees has ever been on a plane,” Alnassery said, adding that the IOM will provide a nurse and an operation manager to make sure the trip from Cambodia to the US goes smoothly.
Alnassery said there are no security concerns and “no hazards brought up to us” regarding their trip to the US.
More than 1,000 Montagnard asylum seekers have fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands in the past 15 months, claiming government persecution. Most were housed in UN High Commissioner for Refugee camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces for more than one year before they were transported to Phnom Penh in April.
The Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri camps were either destroyed or closed after the Montagnards were transported to the capital, and the Cambodian government stated earlier that it would no longer accept asylum seekers from Vietnam—a move that drew heavy criticism from human rights groups and diplomats who claimed it would deprive potential asylum seekers of their right to UN protection until their refugee status is determined.
The 905-plus Montagnards currently set for repatriation in the US now face the monumental task of rebuilding their lives in a new, unfamiliar country.
The Montagnards, however, will receive substantial help from agencies in the US, said Carl Regan, an official with Save the Montagnard People who has been working with the Montagnards in cooperation with the US embassy for at least one year.
Many church and religious institutions, such as Catholic Social Services, will provide the Montagnards with clothing and household necessities while the state government of North Carolina will provide the Montagnards with money for housing, Regan said.
Although Regan could not comment on how much US government assistance the Montagnard refugees would receive, he said previous Montagnards who were resettled in the US received government assistance for one month.
“The Montagnards are very hard working and self-sufficient, and within a month they were working on their own,” he said in reference to the group of Vietnamese hilltribe members resettled in 1986 and 1992.
Among the groups working with the settlement of Montagnards in North Carolina is the Special Forces Association, a group of former US Special Forces soldiers who fought with Montagnards during the war in Vietnam, Regan said. The Special Forces Association will sponsor about 30 families.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)