Vietnam is making progress in respecting the rights of Montagnards in the Central Highlands but some still have legitimate fears of persecution, a senior US official said in Phnom Penh on Thursday.
An increasing number of Montagnards who cross into Cambodia seeking asylum do so for economic reasons, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, told reporters at the US Embassy.
Sauerbrey said that during a visit in Vietnam with seven Montagnards who were deported from Cambodia after being denied refugee status by the UN, she had seen no signs of persecution.
“Now can I say that everything is fine because of my visit to the Central Highlands? No. All I can say is that people we had the opportunity to visit…indicated that there were no problems in terms of persecution,” Sauerbrey said.
“I think it’s fair to say that conditions are improving,” she said.
But she added that apparent problems still persist.
“There are still some people who [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] is interviewing extensively and still finding that there is a valid claim to a credible fear of persecution,” she said.
A group of 30 Montagnard refugees, currently under the care of UNHCR in Phnom Penh and who are to be resettled to the US next week, told Sauerbrey during her visit that they are not free to practice their religion in Vietnam, she said.
Inge Sturkenboom, spokeswoman for UNHCR in Cambodia, said that her organization recognizes that some Montagnards fear persecution in their homeland.
“We recognize people because they fear persecution in Vietnam,” she said. “The fact that we still recognize people indicates that we still feel that there is persecution.”
Nguyen Son Thuy, a counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy, said he was too busy to talk to a reporter.
A representative for Human Rights Watch voiced cautious approval of Sauerbrey’s trip to the Central Highlands.
“We’re very glad to see any foreign officials going to the Central Highlands, particularly high-ranking officials from the refugee bureau of the US State Department,” the Rights Watch representative said on condition of anonymity.
“We caution against drawing broad conclusions after a one-day visit to one village with seven people,” the representative added.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean.)