A plan that could repatriate some if not all of the almost 1,000 Montagnards from Vietnam’s Central Highlands now under UN care in Cambodia continues to take fire from international human rights organizations who fear legitimate asylum seekers will be forced back to Vietnam.
“We are concerned that this agreement may send a green light to both the Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities that it is now acceptable to forcibly expel Montagnards seeking asylum in Cambodia,” said Rachael Reilly, refugee policy director for the London-based group Human Rights Watch, in a joint statement with Amnesty International.
The repatriation agreement, signed Monday by Cambodia, Vietnam and senior regional officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also draws unfavorable attention from the US, where there has been a strong push for the Montagnards not to be returned to Vietnam, where many say they fear continued oppression.
Already, at least 38 Montagnards who fled the Central Highlands early last year have gone to the US.
A senior US State Department official who visited a UNHCR camp for Montagnards in Mondolkiri province will go back to Washington, DC, with the message that the repatriation agreement needs to at least be clarified, if not changed, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Friday.
“Of particular concern to the United States is the issue of the voluntariness of any repatriations and the question of UNHCR access to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to assess the situation,” a US State Department statement released Wednesday read.
But Nikola Mihajlovic, head of liaison office for UNHCR Phnom Penh, said these issues have already been clarified with US officials in Phnom Penh, adding that though the agreement does not mention voluntary repatriation in writing, “It goes without saying UNHCR does not pursue anything but voluntary repatriation.”
Third country resettlement for those Montagnards who refuse to go back—one of the three options always open to asylum seekers, according to UNHCR Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi—was not discussed before the agreement was signed and is also not mentioned in its text.
Mihajlovic said Thursday it is too early to speculate whether there will be Montagnards who need to be resettled elsewhere, stressing instead Vietnam’s willingness to give UNHCR access to the Central Highlands to report on the situation there.
“This is a breakthrough… this is very significant. We are talking about home visits, not looking at some village square—it’s very clear from the text [of the agreement],” Mihajlovic said.
He said he expected UNHCR teams to begin visiting Vietnam “very soon.”