More than 1,000 Montagnards fled Vietnam in 2001 after their demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom in the Central Highlands sparked a massive security crackdown by Hanoi, leading to widespread arrests and lengthy imprisonment for those who took part. But for 124 Montagnard refugees who fled to the relative safety of Cambodia and still remain here, their life has taken on prisonlike conditions as they continue their long wait in limbo for the US government to make a decision on whether they can be resettled.
Celebrating their second Christmas in a Cambodian facility for refugees, the Montagnards—housed by the UN in a ramshackle villa on the outskirts of Phnom Penh—said on Thursday that their wait for resettlement is causing psychological illness and raising questions about their decision to flee as refugees.
“Christmas made us feel better. But our life has made us feel tired and lose aspiration,” said a 32-year-old refugee who first slogged out of the Vietnamese jungles and into a UN refugee camp in Mondolkiri province in May 2001.
“Some of us hold on to the promise of the US government. But now it is so long to wait, and no decision has been made about us,” he said.
“We feel we have lost our freedom. Some people say we are like prisoners,” he said. “They were suffering in the Central Highlands, now they suffer here too. It is double-suffering.”
Elation followed the US offer in April of resettlement for the 906-strong Montagnard refugee population in Cambodia. Predominately Christian, the Montagnards in the Central Highlands have long been viewed with suspicion by Hanoi because of their allegiance to US forces during the war in Vietnam and their long held aspirations for an autonomous homeland.
Hundreds boarded airplanes at Pochentong Airport for the long flight to their new life, but by the end of this year the departures slowed to a trickle and have now all but stopped, leaving the last 124 wondering about their future.
“The US said we were all going, but now they can only take half of us,” said a second refugee, a 44-year-old member of the Pnong minority.
“So if the US lied, we should have stayed in Vietnam and died with our families,” said the refugee adding it was better he die in the place he was born than slowly in Cambodia.
“I think now that if I did not come here I could have lived [secretly] in the forest,” he said.
Several Montagnards said they are homesick and the strain of not knowing what the future holds has caused illness, some of it psychosomatic. The 30 or so refugee children are also suffering as a result of being confined to the dingy villa in the city’s suburbs.
“People here get sick because they worry and think too much. For that sickness, no medicine can help them,” said another middle-aged refugee.
Even the English and computer classes that are available to the refugees are not enough to make up for the boredom and a fear of what the future holds, several of the refugees said.
The final decision on when the remaining refugees will be allowed to resettle in the US will be made by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in Bangkok, say officials at the International Organization of Migration and UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mohammad AInassery, IOM’s acting chief of mission, said on Thursday that no confirmed date is yet in sight for the refugees.
The IOM’s cultural orientation program currently available to the refugees—which includes computer, aerobics and dancing classes—would be supplemented with weekly visiting from mental health officials, Alnassery said.
“We are trying to do everything that will, at least, keep them going,” he said.
US Embassy officials in Phnom Penh have blamed the hold-up on a global back-log in resettlement as a result of increased security screening following the Sept 11 suicide attacks on Washington DC and New York City.
The officials claim the remaining 124 refugees have not been singled out for a particular reason.
However, sources close to the refugees note that suspicion has been thrown on the group following disputes between competing Montagnards support organizations in the US.