The US-based organization Human Rights Watch has demanded that Cambodia continue to offer sanctuary to Montagnards fleeing what Human Rights Watch claims is the Vietnamese government’s continued persecution in the Central Highlands.
In a 200-page report titled “Repression of Montagnards” released today, the rights group detailed the Hanoi government’s attack on Montagnard protests in the Central Highlands last year, which sparked the flight of hundreds of refugees into Cambodia.
“I fled from my village after I saw 40 police ransack my neighbor’s house and take him away to jail,” said one ethnic Jarai man interviewed by Human Rights Watch in March 2001.
“Once I got [to Cambodia] I realized that I couldn’t return to Vietnam or I’d be arrested…. Now all I wonder is, what about my wife and children in Vietnam—I’ve had no news about what happened to them after I left.”
Some 905 Montagnards are currently under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ protection in Phnom Penh awaiting processing for resettlement in the US.
One Montagnard man, Y Hung, remains jailed in Mondolkiri province on kidnapping charges that some rights workers say are baseless.
One observer said recently that senior Cambodian officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have indicated Y Hung will not be returned to Vietnam, and there are indications that he may soon be released.
The UNHCR, faced with mounting pressure from Cambodia to solve a growing refugee crisis, was forced into a flawed repatriation agreement earlier this year that was ultimately doomed, Human Rights Watch wrote.
“The agreement made no mention of the fact that, under international law, any return of refugees to Vietnam must be voluntary,” the report states.
UNHCR Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi repeatedly maintained the agency wouldn’t engage in anything other than voluntary repatriation, but it quickly became apparent that Cambodia and Vietnam’s interpretation of the agreement was different from the UNHCR’s.
“In a subsequent meeting with UNHCR, [Cambodian National Police Director-General] Hok Lundy reportedly said that there were going to be some changes in the way the tripartite agreement was to be implemented,” the report states.
Hok Lundy was “on a mission” Monday and not available for comment, his chief of staff Mao Chandara said.
“When questioned as to whether setting a deadline for the return of all Montagnards refugees to Vietnam contravened the spirit of the agreement, the Vietnamese ambassador reportedly said: ‘Show me the word voluntary in the document,’” the report continues.
Human Rights Watch claims more than 500 Montagnards have been forcibly deported by Cambodian authorities since the first asylum seekers began fleeing across the border.
“In many cases there was evident close cooperation between Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities in deporting and persecuting refugees, with fees paid upon occasion to Cambodian civilians or policemen who turned over refugees,” the reports states.
Cambodian officials say Montagnards coming into Cambodia are illegal immigrants and legally subject to deportation. As part of his decision to allow the 905 Montagnards to go to the US, Hun Sen closed the UNHCR’s two camps and declared the border with Vietnam sealed.
“We must send them back. Every country in the world sends back illegal immigrants who cross their borders. This country belongs to Cambodia, not to UNHCR,” Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng told Reuters in March.
Rights workers have challenged this claim, saying Cambodia is a signatory to international refugee conventions that require it to offer Montagnards at least temporary asylum.
“The turmoil in the highlands —and the refugee flow into Cambodia—is likely to continue until Hanoi takes effective action to end the mistreatment of the Montagnards,” the report states.
One UNHCR worker said earlier this month that Cambodia will likely be dealing with Montagnard asylum seekers for “the next 10 years.” There have been no confirmed reports of new Montagnards crossing the border.
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)