Fifteen Montagnard asylum seekers returned to Vietnam’s Central Highlands Tuesday in the first round of UN-organized repatriations aimed at ending a year-long hill tribe refugee crisis in Cambodia.
“It’s voluntary,” Indrika Ratwatte, an official with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok, said of Tuesday’s repatriation. “All said they want to return.”
Interior Ministry official Sok Phal and Dim Yarom, first deputy police chief for Ratanakkiri province, confirmed that UNHCR officials escorted the 15 from a Ratanakkiri province camp to the Vietnamese border, where other UNHCR staff waited to meet them.
“It went very well,” said Nikola Mihajlovic, the UNHCR’s head liaison in Phnom Penh. He referred all other questions to UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The 15 were part of a group of about 109 asylum seekers who had originally agreed to go back to their homes. But amid growing criticism for the return, particularly from the US, a scheduled repatriation Saturday was postponed.
The delay infuriated Vietnamese officials, who accused the US of deliberately interfering in the repatriation to blacken Vietnam’s name.
But critics, including US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, claim the Montagnards have not been given enough information about conditions in the Central Highlands, which saw a harsh crackdown last year on protesting hill tribe minorities.
It’s not clear why the remaining 94 did not return, or when more repatriations might take place.
Sok Phal said no other returns are expected this week.
Currently, some 1,065 Montagnards remain under UNHCR protection in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government’s willingness to shelter the asylum seekers has strained relations with Vietnam, which considers the Montagnards illegal emigrants and has accused outsiders of instigating the protests and encouraging villagers to flee.
But in government-arranged interviews in the Central Highlands Tuesday—marking only the second time journalists have been allowed into the area since the government crackdown on protests there—several relatives of people who have crossed the border said outsiders were not responsible.
One, Ploy in Bong Phun village, said she and her husband had
participated in the protests and he had fled to Cambodia after a heated argument with local officials.
“He was frightened,” she said. “We all miss him very much.”
Eight of the 657 people in the predominantly Protestant village fled to Cambodia, the village chief said.
Dem, an 18-year-old farmer, said he and two friends decided in January to cross the border because other young people in his village had said life was better there.
“My life here is very difficult,” he said. “But life in Cambodia was more miserable so we decided to come back.”
As part of the Jan 21 repatriation agreement signed by UNHCR, Cambodia and Vietnam, UNHCR representatives visited the Central Highlands for three days last week to appraise conditions, and then traveled to Cambodia to report their findings to the refugees.
The home visits and Tuesday’s repatriation have been applauded by some as a break in the stalemate that has kept the Montagnards in Cambodia for the last year.
“This has been a problem in Cambodia for a long time already,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said. “We want to resolve the problem as soon as possible.”
But others, including Wiedemann and international human rights groups, say the process has been pushed too quickly. Some have accused Vietnam and Cambodia of trying to strongarm the UNHCR into the immediate return of as many of the asylum seekers as possible, despite provisions that any returns have to be voluntary.
A US Embassy staff member said Tuesday US officials may travel to Ratanakkiri to monitor possible future returns.
The US has already resettled at least 38 Montagnards asylum seekers since hill tribe members began fleeing into Cambodia, and Wiedemann has said the US is willing to take more.
(Additional reporting by the Associated Press)