As 24 Montagnards returned to Vietnam on Thursday after Cambodia refused to process their asylum claims, rights groups criticized the U.N.’s refugee agency for assisting the government in repatriating the group to a country where they claim to have fled from persecution.
The U.N. has said that more than 200 Montagnard asylum seekers have come to Phnom Penh over the past year, and are being taken care of by an NGO with the government refusing to process their applications.
Last month, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that all of the Montagnards in Cambodia—with the exception of 13 who were granted refugee status in March—had three months to return to Vietnam, or would be forcibly sent back.
Chea Bunthoeun, deputy Ratanakkiri provincial police chief, said Thursday that 24 Montagnards crossed the border at the O’Yadaw International Checkpoint into Vietnam’s Gia Lai province at around 8 a.m., claiming they “missed” their homeland.
Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the group had voluntarily returned to Vietnam, and that Hanoi had assured the agency “verbally and in writing” that the group would not face punishment upon returning.
“UNHCR accompanied the group of 24 back to Viet Nam’s Central Highlands today. We will be visiting some of them and some from the previous group of returnees to find out how they are doing,” Ms. Tan said via email.
“UNHCR’s stance remains that everyone wishing to seek asylum, including those from Viet Nam’s Central Highlands, should be able to access the national asylum procedure in Cambodia and be given due process,” she said.
“That UNHCR facilitates the return of people who voluntarily choose to return to their home country does not contradict the aforementioned.”
Human rights activists, however, criticized the UNHCR’s decision to assist the Cambodian government in repatriating the Montagnards to Vietnam.
Andrea Giorgetta, head of the Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights, called Hanoi’s claim that it would not discriminate against the Montagnards “laughable” due to the well-documented evidence of abuse against the group.
“The UNHCR must fully exercise its protection mandate and ensure that the Montagnards who fled to Cambodia will not be sent back to Vietnam to face persecution,” Mr. Giorgetta said via email.
“The Vietnamese government’s assurances that the Montagnards will not be ill-treated are laughable,” he added. “The Montagnard asylum seekers are stuck between two abusive governments, whose statements should never be taken at face value.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, accused the UNHCR of legitimizing the government’s violation of the Refugee Convention through its involvement in the repatriation.
“UNHCR should be standing a hundred miles away from this entire process because by its involvement, it’s sending precisely the wrong message that these returns are okay,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.
“This is a deja vu moment, we’ve seen these types of returns of Montagnards before with Cambodia, Vietnam and UNHCR involved and guess what—it didn’t end well for the Montagnards,” he said.