None of the Montagnard asylum seekers now in Cambodia will be forced to return to Vietnam, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees head of liasion for Cambodia said Tuesday, less than a week before the UNHCR is scheduled to meet with Vietnamese and Cambodian officials to try to negotiate a repatriation deal for nearly 1,000 Montagnards living under UNHCR supervision.
“Absolutely nobody is going to be returned against their will,” said the UNHCR’s Nikola Mihajlovic. “They must have all the [information] to come up with an informed choice, and by us having access [to Vietnam’s Central Highlands] we would be able to provide them with this [information].”
Vietnam has so far refused to allow UNHCR officials into the Central Highlands to monitor any return by Montagnards, who began fleeing early last year and now reside in two refugee camps in northeastern Cambodia.
Mihajlovic said Vietnam’s refusal remains the major obstacle to a repatriation agreement, and Vietnamese officials have given no indication they are likely to change their minds.
“With regard to the question on whether UNHCR officials will be allowed to visit the returnees, this is not an appropriate time to provide an answer,” the Reuters news service quoted Vietnamese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh as saying at a news briefing in Hanoi last Thursday.
Phan Thuy Thanh said the Montagnards had crossed illegally into Cambodia—a stance adopted by some Cambodian officials pushing for their immediate deportation under immigration laws rather than allowing them asylum as possible refugees.
Human rights groups have blasted any repatriation plan that would start returning Montagnards to the Central Highlands without strict monitoring.
“Everything we know suggests that it’s still not safe for Montagnards in Cambodia to go home. There is substantial evidence that the government’s crackdown in the Central Highlands is systematic and ongoing,” wrote Joe Saunders, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, in a statement released Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that any agreement reached during scheduled meetings next Monday and Tuesday in Phnom Penh of representatives from Cambodia, Vietnam and the UNHCR would threaten future asylum seekers from Vietnam.
“This should not trigger the closure of the UNHCR camps in Cambodia for those who remain, nor bar the provision of asylum to others continuing to flee persecution in Vietnam,” Saunders said.
While acknowledging some reports of forced deportations, Mihajlovic said credit should be given to Cambodian officials for cooperating with the UNHCR. But he stressed the Montagnard influx may continue and need to be dealt with properly.
“Any agreement that could be achieved doesn’t mean that everybody just goes home,” he said. “You might have people repatriated today, but you might have new arrivals tomorrow…. This should not make anyone forget they have to live up to their international obligations.”
Despite a willingness to temporarily allow Montagnards from Vietnam to stay in Cambodia, the government has repeatedly said it does not want a long-term refugee situation to evolve, and some observers say government officials have painted a dire picture of the situation to force an agreement.
An RCAF report released Jan 7 said the military was concerned about the increase in the number of Montagnards coming across the border, stating that some 200 have arrived already this month.
Mihajlovic said this number is drastically exaggerated, and that only about 20 Montagnards have arrived in Ratanakkiri province, where the UNHCR has set up one of its two Montagnard camps. The other is in Mondolkiri province.
Mihajlovic said the number of asylum seekers will likely increase no matter how any repatriation plan is designed.
“We are asking for the same requirements as in July, and then we were talking about 400 people,” Mihajlovic said. “Now we have the same situation with double the caseload. You can’t just reach a conclusion now and then double the caseload again.”
“Let’s sit down and deal with this now,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)