The first of nearly 400 Montagnard refugees from a UN camp in Ratanakkiri province were airlifted to Phnom Penh Saturday as the UN put into motion the resettlement of hill tribe members who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands last year.
Thirty-seven refugees, carrying almost nothing, were seen stepping off the second of three shuttle flights to arrive Saturday at Phnom Penh’s military airport. They were whisked onto a waiting bus, which then pushed its way through the capital’s busy streets with a police escort to an unused garment factory where the Montagnards will be processed by US officials in anticipation of their move to the US.
Three more flights arrived from Ratanakkiri Sunday, bringing the total to arrive from that camp to approximately 220. The remaining Ratanakiri refugees are expected to arrive today and possibly Tuesday.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expects to transport by road today more than 500 Montagnards from the agency’s Mondolkiri province camp to Phnom Penh.
“We’ve been cooperating extensively with the Cambodian side on all of this and I don’t expect any problems,” said US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann.
Officials from the US Immigration and Naturalization Services will arrive later this week to begin interviewing the Montagnards, who have all said they want to go to the US, Wiedemann said.
The first refugees could be resettled in “a couple of weeks,” according to the ambassador.
While there is always a possibility that some of the Montagnards won’t qualify for asylum, he said that’s “very, very low. The presumption is these people are qualified and they are going to go.”
Both US and Cambodian officials hope the resettlements will end Cambodia’s year-old refugee crisis, which has strained relations between Cambodia and its more-powerful neighbor, Vietnam.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said the UNHCR’s camps will be closed and the border with Vietnam sealed after the resettlement. Human rights groups say such moves to keep future asylum seekers from reaching UNHCR protection violates international refugee conventions.
“Like any government, Cambodia has an obligation under international law to keep its borders open to those fleeing persecution, and to provide at least temporary protection and asylum,” said Rachel Reilly in a statement from the US-based Human Rights Watch.
The Cambodian government maintains that anyone else crossing the border is an illegal immigrant and subject to deportation. “The main purpose of these people is to go to the US through Cambodia,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said following a meeting with the UNHCR earlier this month.
Others fear countless others will continue to cross the border. Vietnam has long had an uneasy relationship with its hill tribe minorities, many of whom fought alongside US soldiers during the war with Vietnam, and continued to wage an anti-communist struggle long after the US withdrew from Vietnam.
“This is the end of the line for these refugees,” one observer said Saturday, referring to those already brought to Phnom Penh.
“But Cambodia will be dealing with this for the next 10 years. Some of these people were still fighting the Vietnam War until 1992. If they have to dig their way out of Vietnam, they will.”
Human rights workers estimate that about 550 Montagnard asylum seekers have been forcibly deported since they began crossing the border last year. A UNHCR repatriation deal signed in January fell apart amid accusations that the Cambodians were handing Montagnards over to the Vietnamese, who have demanded the immediate return of anyone crossing the border, calling them “illegal escapees.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)