The US-based group Human Rights Watch has blasted the repatriation this week of more than 1,000 Montagnards who came under UN care in Cambodia after fleeing a government crackdown on protest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands one year ago.
Some 109 Montagnards in a UN High Commissioner for Refugees camp in Ratanakkiri have said they might voluntarily return home, and as many as two dozen are expected to leave Cambodia Tuesday, one observer said.
But Human Rights Watch said in a statement Monday the planned repatriation has been “rushed” and doesn’t guarantee the safety of any returnees once they are back in Vietnam, where rights groups allege human rights abuses by Vietnamese authorities are ongoing.
“This hasty, ill-conceived operation is not in the best interests of the returnees,” said Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
UNHCR’s Phnom Penh chief, Nikola Mihajlovic, said Sunday UNHCR staff are currently counseling possible returnees, and that no firm repatriation date has been set. Nor is it clear how many Montagnards might go back, he said, explaining that people can change their minds about returning at any time.
Since an agreement was signed last month between the UNHCR, Vietnam and Cambodia, the return of Montagnards to Vietnam has come under heavy fire from critics who have questioned the willingness of hill tribe members to go back to the Central Highlands. The UNHCR has repeatedly stressed that any repatriation will be voluntary, after UNHCR staff conducts a series of extensive visits to the Central Highlands and reports back to any Montagnards considering going home.
But critics say the term “voluntary repatriation” is absent from the text of the repatriation agreement signed by the UNHCR, and that in reality, the agreement gives the UNHCR inadequate access to the Central Highlands.
“To date, UNHCR officials have spent only a few days in the Central Highland provinces of Vietnam—from which most of the asylum seekers originate—insufficient time to establish that there has been a fundamental or durable improvement in the human rights situation there,” the Human Rights Watch statement says.
The planned repatriation of some Montagnards Saturday was postponed amid growing criticism, particularly from US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, who said his government is concerned that asylum seekers were agreeing to go back without sufficient information about the situation in the Central Highlands.
On Sunday, Vietnam lashed out at the US, charging “brutal interference” had prompted the UN decision to delay the repatriations.
The US showed “a lack of respect” for the UNHCR by “putting pressure” on the agency to postpone the return, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said.
The spokeswoman also insisted that last week’s UNHCR visits to the homes of potential returnees in the Central Highlands had already allowed the agency to “see that the conditions exist for the safe and dignified reintegration” of the Montagnards.
Mihajlovic defended UNHCR efforts in the Central Highlands, saying teams there never intended on visiting every village to which Montagnards might return.
“The plan was adequate…we have photos of families, letters. These are credible things,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse)