Saturday’s scheduled repatriation of 109 Montagnard asylum seekers by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has been pushed back amid criticism that the agency is moving too fast to try to return to Vietnam’s Central Highlands hill tribe members who have fled to Cambodia during the past year.
Although he said the voluntary return of some of the Montagnards in the UNHCR’s Ratanakkiri province camp is “imminent,” it will not take place this weekend, said Nikola Mihajlovic, head of the liaison office for the UNHCR in Phnom Penh.
“We want to give ourselves enough time to counsel them. There is no date yet,” he said of the 109 Montagnards who have agreed to go back to the Central Highlands.
Any Montagnard who has agreed to return can change their mind, the UNHCR officials contend. “One hundred and nine people signed the form, but it doesn’t mean that many will go back. That’s the beauty of the process,” Mihajlovic said.
About 1,085 Montagnards are currently under the UNHCR protection in Cambodia after fleeing a government crackdown on protests in the Central Highlands a year ago.
While relatively small, the refugee situation has strained relations between Cambodia and Vietnam, which continues to claim the Montagnards have left Vietnam illegally and should be immediately returned.
Tensions also remain high between UNHCR and the US, which has blasted the agency for signing a repatriation deal that the US claims fails to protect the Montagnards by not allowing UNHCR enough access to the Central Highlands to monitor their return.
A UNHCR team visited the Central Highlands for several days, the first such visit allowed by the Vietnamese as part of the repatriation deal. But US ambassador Kent Wiedemann said it wasn’t enough time to get an accurate picture of the situation.
“The whole point of a repatriation system with what UNHCR has always described as free, unfettered access…is a pre-repatriation inspection and post-repatriation monitoring,” he said.
“Clearly, in four days you can’t do any of this. At this point it is far, far too premature for any of these people to go back.”
A senior US Embassy official who visited the Ratanakkiri camp Wednesday said he was refused access Thursday. Mihajlovic said UNHCR has had no official contact with US Embassy staff. “We’re doing our stuff,” he said.
The US, which accepted at least 38 Montagnards last year and took in hundreds of former Montagnard resistance fighters in the early 1990s, has continued to be a strong critic of UNHCR, taking the agency to task for pushing the repatriation timetable ahead too fast.
“There is a very strong concern on the part of me and generally my government that this is all far too rapid to be credible,” Wiedemann said.
State media in Vietnam reported last week that large groups of Montagnards continue to cross into Cambodia, where they are pushed back into Vietnam by Cambodian authorities. Both Wiedemann and Mihajlovic said their officials have seen no evidence of any new asylum seekers.