Sixteen Montagnards are set to be repatriated to Vietnam today with the help of the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) after losing the right to appeal the rejection of their asylum applications, officials and a U.S.-based NGO said on Wednesday.
“We decided to drop them from receiving refugee status because they have no evidence to prove they are refugees,” said Houl Sarith, head of the refugee department’s office for receiving application of asylum-seekers at the Interior Ministry.
They are part of a group of 65 Montagnards in Phnom Penh who were denied asylum by the department last month. The remaining 49 have filed complaints with the Court of Appeal, Mr. Sarith said on Wednesday.
Government and UNHCR officials visited the 16 on Tuesday, he said. “We told them they had to leave Cambodia because they are not allowed to stay anymore as they lost their right to get refugee status.”
The group initially refused to return, but were told they had no choice, he added.
They had refused “because they are worried about their safety, but they later agreed after we explained the immigration law to them,” he said.
Y-Lhul Buonya, who conducts investigations for the NGO Montagnards Support Group, confirmed today’s planned deportations in an email on Wednesday. He said the 16 were feeling anxious about their return.
“I know they’re feeling very scared to go back because they had been persecuted by the government of Vietnam,” he said.
Last month, Mr. Sarith said UNHCR representatives planned to meet with the refugee department to find out why the 65 applications had been rejected, after the group was criticized for its role in repatriating 25 other Montagnards in April. On Wednesday, he said the meeting had been delayed because the UNHCR was collecting supporting documents.
The UNHCR did not respond to a request for comment.
The Montagnards, from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, have long faced religious and political persecution.
The latest wave of Montagnards escaping to Cambodia began in 2014. An initial group of 13 were granted refugee status and are currently waiting in the Philippines to be assigned to a third country, while three more were granted asylum last month.
The majority are either still in Phnom Penh or have been forced to return, while others have returned “voluntarily” with UNHCR assistance.
The UNHCR’s insistence that the 25 Montagnards who left Cambodia in April had returned voluntarily has been refuted by some in the group, who say they were told they had no choice and later reported persecution and surveillance upon their return to Vietnam.