Ministry Says VN Refugees May Be Sent Back

The Interior Ministry warned Wednes­­day that if Montagnard re­fugees and asylum-seekers housed in Phnom Penh refuse re­set­tlement in a third country, they will be returned to Vietnam.

As government officials began in­terviewing Montagnards at UN fa­cilities in Phnom Penh to determine their preference, Khieu So­pheak, Interior Ministry spokes­man, said staying in Cambodia is not an option for them.

“It’s up to a third country to vol­un­teer to receive them,” Khieu So­pheak said, adding that he did not know when a decision would be made on the Montagnards’ fate.

The announcement came amid reports from New York-based Hu­man Rights Watch of mass arrests of Montagnards in Vietnam’s Central Highlands over the Christ­mas period.

Vietnamese authorities have ar­rested the wives and children of Mon­tagnards who have fled to Cam­bodia, as well as church leaders and people preparing to celebrate Christmas, a Human Rights Watch official said Wednesday.

People suspected of helping Mon­tagnards flee to Cambodia have also been arrested, the rights worker said.

Rights Watch has received re­ports of more than 60 Montag­nards in Gia Lai province, mainly of the Jarai ethnic minority group, be­ing arrested between Dec 12 and Dec 24.

Arrests had been ongoing since mass demonstration in April by Montagnards but spiked in late November and December, the Human Rights Watch official said.

The organization has less infor­ma­­tion on other Central High­lands provinces but has received re­­ports of similar arrests in Dak Lak province.

Highlanders trying to communicate with the outside world via mo­bile phone have also been arrested, the Hu­man Rights Watch official said.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh has received reports that 10 people were arrested in the Central Highlands over the Christ­mas period, said spokesman Ngu­yen Thanh Duc.

“Bad elements tried to make un­rest and riots,” Nguyen Thanh Duc said. Those arrested “tried to de­stroy the unity and solidarity” of Vietnam, he said.

Denying that religious persecution was taking place in the Cen­tral Highlands, Nguyen Thanh Duc ac­­­cused those who were ar­rest­ed of trying to spoil “the very ho­ly and very sacred Christmas Eve.”

“All the people [in Vietnam] have the right to religious freedom,” he added.

In interviews on Nov 18, some Montagnards housed at UN facilities in Phnom Penh said they wanted to resettle in the US, but many said they wanted to remain in Cambodia to highlight the plight of Montagnard communities in the Central Highlands.

State-controlled Vietnamese me­dia on Wednesday accused UN High Commissioner for Re­fu­gees of­­ficials in Phnom Penh of train­ing 13 Montagnard asylum-seekers to return to Vietnam and instigate others to flee, The Associated Press reported.

Thamrongsak Meechubot, the UNHCR’s representative in Phnom Penh, said Wednesday that the accusations refer to 13 Mon­tagnards who returned from a Phnom Penh UN facility to Viet­nam of their own accord on Oct 5.

Denying the Vietnamese media re­port, Thamrongsak Meechubot said UNHCR knew nothing of the 13.

“We have no business in their activities,” he said.

Meechubot added that not all the Montagnards in Phnom Penh are refugees. It remains the Cambodian gov­ern­ment’s decision whether or not to send Mon­tagnards, who are not refugees, back to Vietnam, he said.

“The government is free to de­cide…but we hope their actions will be humanitarian,” he added.

Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, who is over­seeing the facilities where the Montagnards are housed, said officials from the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry who interviewed Montagnards in Phnom Penh on Wednesday did so in an amicable and humane manner at one site.

However, the interviews reportedly did not proceed as smoothly at some of the three other sites in Phnom Penh.

“In the long run I hope they can go back to Vietnam,” Coghlan said. But, she added: “For the re­fugees to be sent back to Viet­nam now could be very hazardous.”

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