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.”