The US State Department expressed concern about Wednesday’s forced repatriation of nearly 100 Montagnards to Vietnam in a statement received Thursday, while Refugees International said it believes the UNHCR should have granted many of them refugee status.
London-based Amnesty International said some members of the group may be at risk of torture in Vietnam, while the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 18 local NGOs, said some of the deportees have been tortured in Vietnam before.
Police wielding electric batons on Wednesday entered a refugee facility in Phnom Penh, hitting some of the Montagnards who did not want to leave, then physically forcing them into buses and escorting 101 of them to Vietnam, the UNHCR and relief workers said.
The US State Department said it viewed “the forced return” of the 94 “with concern.”
Seven Montagnards of the 101 identified themselves as Cambodians to the Vietnamese authorities and were allowed to return to Cambodia, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.
“We are disappointed that these individuals were repatriated before an internationally staffed monitoring program was in place in the Central Highlands” and before other solutions could be considered for them, the State Department said.
The UNHCR declined immediate comment, while the Interior Ministry said that the deported Montagnards entered Cambodia without proper documentation and that the ministry implemented the immigration law by sending them back.
Refugees International said it believes many of the group should have been allowed to stay in Cambodia or to be resettled in a third country, according to a statement received Thursday.
“Many of [the deportees] have legitimate fears of being persecuted in Vietnam and should have received refugee status,” Refugees International said.
Amnesty International said in an appeal received Thursday that some of the group may be at risk of serious human rights violations, including torture.
Ly Quang Bich, political counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy, could not be reached for comment Thursday, but Vietnam has previously denied that it persecutes returning Montagnards.
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said Thursday that it was the UNHCR’s decision not to grant the group refugee status and referred questions about their safety in Vietnam to the UNHCR and the Vietnamese authorities.
“We are the ministry of enforcing the law so we implement Cambodian law,” he said.
On Tuesday, he said Montagnards housed in Phnom Penh should have been missing their families and hometowns, like other people living outside their home countries.
“If the UNHCR gives them refugee visas, we are a member of the 1951 convention [on refugees], we have to cooperate with the UNHCR to find a third country,” he said Thursday. “It’s not the government’s decision [to deny them refugee status].”
Relief workers say that police appeared to hit some Montagnards with electric batons inside the refugee facility.
“Eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch confirmed that Intervention Police shocked many of the Montagnards with electric batons while they were sitting down,” a Rights Watch official said Thursday.
“Many were also hit with wooden batons, including one woman with a baby strapped to her back,” the Rights Watch official said.
Chhay Sinarith, director of the Interior Ministry’s Information Department, said police did not use excessive force.
“There was no violence, no injury,” he said Thursday. “The law allows us to bring them back, but they denied to get in the bus. Police just dragged them and pushed them into the bus,” he said, adding that some families left peacefully.
On Tuesday, two US Senators and four members of US Congress wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen, expressing their concern about the planned deportation, according to a copy of their letter obtained Thursday.
The Cambodian HRAC, a coalition of 18 local NGOs, questioned whether the UNHCR “fully and properly” assessed the Montagnards’ claims to refugee status, adding that the group included people who have previously been tortured in Vietnam. Amnesty International urged members of the public to write to Prime Minister Hun Sen and co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, expressing concern about the level of force used during the operation.
The steady trickle of refugees coming into Cambodia from the Central Highlands showed no sign of abating Thursday.
One week ago, 28 additional Montagnards slipped across the Cambodian border and are hiding in the jungles of Ratanakkiri province, said Pen Bonnar, Adhoc provincial coordinator.
He said that he has urged the UNHCR to come as quickly as possible, as the 28 are facing food shortages and heavy rain.
“They can’t be delayed to stay in the forest because it is easy to make them sick,” he said.
“They did not dare to come into Cambodia at Mondolkiri province because [Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities] are strictly patrolling,” Pen Bonnar said.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)