Officials Set Date for Montagnard Discussions

Senior regional officers from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees plan to meet Jan 21 in Phnom Penh with Cambodian and Vietnamese officials to try to reach a deal that would send nearly 1,000 Montagnards currently seeking asylum in Cam­bodia back to their homes in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Vietnamese Embassy spokes­man Chu Dong Loc said the basics of a repatriation plan have already been agreed upon, even though negotiations ground to a halt after the Vietnamese refused to allow the UNHCR access to the Central Highlands to monitor the return of some of the Mon­tagnards, who began fleeing into Cambodia early last year.

“If each side is still taking their old stance, [we] are blocked, but this meeting is to find how we can solve the problem,” a UNHCR official said Monday.

The flight from Vietnam began after what asylum seekers claim was a massive crackdown on religious and land rights by the Hanoi government. Many say they will not go back to Vietnam and continue to hold out hopes of going to the US.

In February 2001, the US resettled 28 Montagnards—a move that drew heavy criticism from the Vietnamese and pushed the US into the role of an unofficial fourth party to the discussions.

“We were the ones who ar­gued for the Montagnards getting asylum [in Cambodia] in the first place and we have remained en­ga­ged ever since,” US Ambas­sa­dor Kent Wiedemann said Mon­day.

While he acknowledged repatriation remains the best option in any refugee situation, he said it can be done only on a voluntary basis, and that other options, including resettlement in a third country, have to be considered.

The approximately 960 asylum seekers are being housed in two camps in Mondolkiri and Ratan­akkiri provinces. New arrivals still trickle across the border.

The Cambodian government—which initially resisted the idea of allowing the Montagnards to stay while the UNHCR dealt with their asylum claims—has become in­creasingly anxious for a resolution.

National Police Director Gen­eral Hok Lundy has said no new asy­lum seekers would be accepted, and anyone coming across the border would be consi­der­ed an illegal immigrant and deported.

There have been scattered reports of forced deportations, or instances of local Cambodian authorities selling potential asylum seekers back to the Vietnamese. But UNHCR officials say provincial authorities remain generally cooperative.

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