US-based Human Rights Watch has accused Vietnamese authorities of physically abusing and detaining Montagnards who have been returned to Vietnam under an agreement struck between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Cambodian government and Hanoi, the organization states in a new report obtained Thursday.
At least four Montagnards who were voluntarily returned to Vietnam from UNHCR facilities in Phnom Penh in March were detained for more than 10 days on their return, Rights Watch said in the report.
During police interrogation in Gia Lai province, “one…was stabbed in the hand with a writing pen. Another was punched in the back, the third was hit in the stomach and the fourth was slapped across the face,” the report says.
The four were last heard of on April 11, when along with another four Montagnard returnees, they were all confined in their houses and under police surveillance, Rights Watch said.
Thamrongsak Meechubot, UNHCR country representative, said he was unable to confirm the Human Rights Watch’s reports of mistreatment.
The 35 Montagnards who returned in March “have our address and [telephone] number but they never contact us,” Meechubot said. “According to the Vietnamese, everyone has returned home safely.”
Eleven more Montagnards have said they want to return to Vietnam, and they are “not afraid to go back,” he added.
“You can’t stop them. We can’t detain them.”
Speaking by telephone from the US on Thursday, a Human Rights Watch official said it was “irresponsible” for the UNHCR “to sit in Geneva and Phnom Penh and say they’ve not heard anything…when there is such clear documentation” of ongoing mistreatment.
Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Nguyen Thanh Duc said Thursday that he did not yet have a copy of the Rights Watch report and could not comment.
Vietnamese security forces in the Central Highlands are continuing to search for Montagnards who have fled their villages and gone into hiding, Human Rights Watch said.
“Police have been conducting midnight raids on villages, [ransacking] the homes of women whose husbands are in hiding. Some of the women, and their children, have been beaten during these raids,” the report adds.
Two US Congressmen wrote to the UNHCR in Geneva on May 4 urging the suspension of all Montagnard repatriations until credible international monitoring has been established in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, according to a copy of the letter obtained Friday.
“We are concerned for the welfare of approximately 100 rejected asylum-seekers in Cambodia and urge that none of them be forced back to Vietnam in current circumstances,” James Leach, chairman of the US Congress Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, and Eni Faleomavaega, a ranking member of the same congressional committee, wrote to the UNHCR.
Adequate safeguards are not in place “to guarantee that refugee decisions are fully informed and voluntary,” the letter added.
On Wednesday evening, 27 Montagnard refugees boarded a plane from Phnom Penh to be resettled in Finland via Bangkok.
Siu Thiuh, 27, said he hoped to study in Finland, find a job and be back with his family in Vietnam in about five years.
Siu Thiuh added that he regretted Cambodia’s decision not to let refugees stay here instead of being resettled to third countries.
“I asked to stay here, but Cambodia doesn’t allow me,” he said before boarding the plane.