As a second round of repatriation talks in Vietnam broke down Wednesday, Cambodian authorities in Mondolkiri province said they are going to ask that nine people in a UN High Commissioner for Refugees camp there be turned over to the government and sent back to their villages in Cambodia, provincial police chief Reach Samnang said.
The chief acknowledged the nine are Montagnards originally from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, but said they have been living in the province long enough to be considered Cambodian.
“We have evidence and witnesses to show they are Cambodian—they have voted twice already in 1993 and 1998. They just changed their names when they went into the camp,” Reach Samnang said, adding that commune and district officials want them returned to their former homes by the start of the rainy season.
This is the second time Cambodian authorities have asked for at least one of the nine people.
A custody fight erupted in May 2001 when police entered the UNHCR camp and demanded several people be handed over to them.
The UNHCR’s staff were able to hold onto the asylum seekers, but the incident illustrated how tenuous that grip really was—and remains so today—observers say.
It appears the Vietnamese are pressuring Cambodia to remove the camp’s leaders with the hopes the remaining asylum seekers will be more likely to return to Vietnam, one observer said.
Vietnam has demanded more Montagnards be repatriated before it will allow the UNHCR access to the Central Highlands—a key provision of the fading repatriation deal struck between the UNHCR, Vietnam and Cambodia in January.
“We didn’t come to any final understanding and the major issue remains the UNHCR’s future home visits to the Central Highlands,” UNHCR Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi said after Tuesday’s talks in Ho Chi Minh City.
So far, 76 Montagnards have returned to Vietnam, 15 of whom were part of a repatriation effort by the UNHCR, while another 61 left on their own from the UNHCR’s Ratanakkiri province camp.
But Vietnam demanded more be sent back—109 had originally said they were willing to return—and accused the agency of waffling on its promises to get back as many of the asylum seekers as possible.
“We said that the three days we have spent in the highlands was just a start, that the 15 refugees who have so far been repatriated was just a start. But Hanoi insisted it wanted to see more repatriations before allowing us back in,” Assadi said.
The UNHCR official attempted to put a brave face on the setback, insisting that the talks had been “very constructive and frank.”
“We have agreed broadly to stay in touch,” Assadi said, although he acknowledged that no date had been set for a new meeting.
More than 1,000 Montagnards remain under the UNHCR’s protection in Cambodia after fleeing a Vietnamese crackdown on protests in the Central Highlands.
Despite US criticism, the international community remained firmly behind the UNHCR’s efforts to reach a compromise with the two governments, Assadi said.
Swedish Ambassador Jan Nordlander acknowledged Wednesday the European Union was “completely opposed” to the US’ criticism of the repatriation deal, and said going home was the best option for the Montagnards.
At a meeting at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva last week, he said: “The international community fully supported the tripartite process and the tripartite agreement.” He added that he was due to brief ambassadors in Hanoi later Wednesday.
Assadi said he had scored one success in Tuesday’s talks, obtaining renewed assurances from Phnom Penh that Cambodia would respect its international obligations on the right to asylum and deport any more Vietnamese refugees.
“On the margins of the meeting we talked separately to the Cambodians and they confirmed their acceptance of their international obligations,” Assadi said.
The expulsion of 63 asylum seekers by Cambodian border guards March 2 sparked an angry reaction from the UNHCR, which condemned a “clear violation of the 1951 Convention on Refugees, to which Cambodia is a party.”
Under the terms of January’s agreement, the three sides are due to hold a fresh round of talks in late May.
But until the deadlock between the UNHCR and Hanoi over access to the Central Highlands is resolved, repatriations will remain suspended.
(Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse)