Montagnards Miss Home, Wary of Deal

sen monorom, Mondolkiri prov­ince – Montagnard asylum seekers, many of whom have spent months in a UN camp, said Tues­day they are happy about a repatriation agreement signed Monday between Cambodia, Vietnam and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“If everything is OK, there will be no problem about going home,” said a 19-year-old woman who has been in the camp for eight months. “I want to go home.”

But the Montagnards also continued to say they fear the Viet­namese government will not honor clauses in the agreement  guaran­teeing that anyone who began fleeing from the Central Highlands early last year will not face retribution if they voluntarily return home.

“The UN and other NGOs should set up a permanent office in Vietnam and stay with us,” said a 30-year-old man who has been in the camp since June. “We are afraid the Vietnamese government will threaten or punish us.” He said the Montagnards in the camp also want assurances their family members will be released from Viet­namese jails.

The Vietnamese delegation at Monday’s meeting in Phnom Penh promised that any returning Montagnards would be well-received. There are now 565 refugees in the Mondolkiri camp.

The delegation also agreed to give UNHCR access to the Central Highlands before, during and after any Montagnards return.

US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, who has closely watched the flight of Montagnards into Cambodia, called Monday’s agreement a positive first step, but said there were many questions left unanswered in the four-page report outlining the repatriation program.

“There’s no reference to ‘voluntary repatriation’—it’s not here and it should be because it is the most fundamental issue there is,” Wiedemann said. “It’s such a vague undertaking by the Vietnamese that it’s not at all clear UNHCR will have what it needs to ensure a safe return.

“How successful will this agreement be in terms of giving UNHCR meaningful access to the Central Highlands? It’s premature to say this is going to a problem until UNHCR goes to the Central Highlands and tests what the Vietnamese are willing to do.”

Agence France-Presse Tuesday quoted government media in Hanoi as saying Vietnam is holding a three-day review of its policies towards the Central Highlands as the first anniversary of the wave of unrest nears.

Development policies for the region need to be more closely coordinated with “national defense and security maintenance, as well as the building of a firm political system,” the government media stated.

Despite these apparent steps by the Vietnamese toward reconciling with the Montagnards, one US-based hill tribe advocate said the situation in the Central Highlands will never improve enough for the refugees to want to return.

“It’s a travesty UNHCR would sign an agreement like this. It’s worse than a sellout,” said Carl Regan, executive director of Save the Montagnard People, who traveled Tuesday to Sen Monorom with a US embassy delegation that included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley, an official responsible for Southeast Asian affairs.

Regan and other US-based Montagnard rights workers—many of whom served along hill tribe fighters during the US War in Vietnam—have pushed hard for US resettlement for any asylum seekers who so choose.

At least 38 Montagnards have already gone to the US. Wiedemann said that “absolutely without question” there are others currently under UNHCR protection who cannot go back to Vietnam, and would be accepted by the US.

(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)






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