Eleven international organizations on Thursday condemned Cambodia’s plan to repatriate scores of Montagnards who claim to be fleeing oppression in Vietnam, while the government on Friday reiterated its position that the Montagnards were not legitimate refugees.
Earlier this month, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that all of the Montagnards in Cambodia—with the exception of 13 who were granted refugee status in March—would be sent back to Vietnam in three months with the assistance of the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, if they did not return of their own volition.
In August, the U.N. said that more than 200 Montagnards were in Phnom Penh waiting for their asylum applications to be processed by the government.
In a statement released late on Thursday, the 11 groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said they were “concerned about the possible refoulement by the Cambodian government of more than 100 Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam,” and called on the government not to send the Montagnards back.
“As a party to Refugee Convention, Cambodia is under a legal obligation to register all individuals seeking asylum in the country and to evaluate their asylum claims,” the statement added.
Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s regional spokesperson, said in an email last week that the agency had no plans to help the Cambodian government return the Montagnards to Vietnam.
Contacted by telephone on Friday, General Sopheak reiterated his position that all of the Montagnards set to be repatriated were illegal immigrants who had been trafficked to Cambodia.
“Of course, their accusation is right if they are refugees, but they are not refugees. We should identify refugees by interviewing them by seeing the root cause of them,” he said of the statement.
“Thirteen have been recognized after interview. After that, they came to Cambodia without any knowledge of the Cambodian society. They infiltrated into Cambodia illegally with the assistance of some people—this is a kind of trafficking,” he added.
The Montagnards—an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—began crossing into Cambodia via Ratanakkiri province in October.
At least 47 were arrested and returned to Vietnam.