Almost all of the remaining 36 Montagnards currently in Phnom Penh are to be returned to Vietnam despite attempts by the U.N.’s refugee agency to transfer the asylum-seekers to a third country, according to an email leaked to reporters on Thursday night.
The email, penned by a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officer who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said a letter received from Interior Ministry Undersecretary of State Ouk Kim Lek, which stated that 29 of the 36 Montagnards in the capital would be deported.
According to international standards, the 29 should “by all means, be recognized as refugees,” the UNHCR officer said. “By rejecting their claims, Cambodia can return these people [UNHCR will not] under the pretense that they are not refugees, which constitutes a grave error in judgment in each of the cases.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Humans Rights Watch, accused the government on Friday of bowing to Vietnam’s demands.
“This is absolutely shameful, when it comes to the Montagnards it’s like Hanoi yells ‘jump!’ and [Deputy Prime Minister] Sar Kheng and his [Interior Ministry] minions immediately reply ‘how high?’” Mr. Robertson said in an email.
“This decision leaves Cambodia’s reputation as a refugee rights respecting country in tatters.”
According to the UNHCR official, the organization had offered a “valid alternative” to take those with strong refugee claims to a third country, but the Cambodian government considered the case “resolved.”
The UNHCR would seek to take the remaining seven Montagnards, three of whom had already been deemed refugees by the government, to a third country “as soon as possible,” the official stated.
Spokesmen for the Interior Ministry and the immigration department could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The decision is the latest in a long line of controversies regarding the repatriation of Montagnards, who face widespread persecution in Vietnam because of their Christian faith and support for U.S. troops in the Second Indochina War.
The latest wave of Montagnards began escaping into Cambodia in late 2014. More than 200 others have been forcibly repatriated to Vietnam, are awaiting their fate in Phnom Penh or have been returned “voluntarily” with the help of the UNHCR.
Some returning Montagnards have refuted UNHCR statements that they returned voluntarily, claiming they were told they had to either agree to leave or face forcible repatriation. Upon arrival in Vietnam, there have been reports of renewed oppression, including being coerced into giving “confessions” on state television.
Rather than quietly provide exit permits to the Montagnards and abide by its international human rights obligations, the government would “prefer to do a favor for Vietnam,” said Mr. Robertson of Human Rights Watch. He urged the country’s diplomats to push the government to rethink its decision.
“The Phnom Penh based diplomatic community needs to urgently act by demanding the government reverse this decision because these Montagnards are definitely refugees who will certainly face political and religious persecution if they are forced back to Vietnam,” he said.