About 50 ethnic minority Vietnamese who had fled to Cambodia following unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands have left Mondolkiri province, a provincial official said Thursday.
“Their relatives came to welcome them back home [at the border]. They came back home safely,” said Nharang Chan, third deputy governor of Mondolkiri.
A local Vietnamese official told The Associated Press that at least 50 hill tribe Vietnamese have been returned to Dakmil district in Daklak province.
Others have been returned to Cu Jut district, the Cong An Nhan Dan (People’s Police) newspaper reported Thursday. It is unclear how many ethnic minority Vietnamese in total have been repatriated or returned on their own.
Hundreds of Montagnards fled into Cambodia earlier this year following a government crackdown prompted by public protests over poverty and land rights for the ethnic minorities. Many of the so-called Montagnards, who sided with the US in its war with Vietnam, also claim religious persecution because they are Protestant Christians.
There are currently 344 Montagnards living in makeshift camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces run by the UN Human Commissioner for Human Rights. UNHCR Officer-in-Charge John Farvolden said the population in the camps has remained steady in recent weeks.
“The UNHCR has not been involved in any voluntary repatriation operations….We remain optimistic that ongoing discussions between the UNHCR with Vietnamese authorities and Cambodian authorities will yield positive results,” Farvolden said.
In July, the UN refused to grant protected status to about 100 Montagnards. Cambodian authorities have warned that those Montagnards would be sent back.
Farvolden said he had received reports that some of the screened-out asylum-seekers ended up back in Vietnam, but said he didn’t know how they were treated.
The UNHCR’s repatriation plan has stalled due to Vietnam’s refusal to allow the agency access to the Highlands for oversight, UN officials have said.
The Vietnamese official told The Associated Press that local authorities have organized meetings between the returnees and the villagers in the areas where they live. Returnees told stories of how they were fooled by “bad elements” who said they would enjoy a better life if they fled to Cambodia, the official said.
On Thursday the People’s Police newspaper accused the US of continuing to nurture “reactionaries” who urge ethnic minorities to flee the country.
Vietnam embassy officials could not be reached Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Richard Sine and The Associated Press)