The U.N. on Thursday facilitated the voluntary return of 12 Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam—which has been accused of systematically persecuting the indigenous minority—after the group spent months in Phnom Penh hoping to be granted refugee status, the U.N. and a rights worker said.
More than 160 Montagnards have fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands to Cambodia since October and most ended up in the capital, where they have been waiting for the Interior Ministry’s refugee department to assess their asylum claims.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said Thursday that 12 of the asylum seekers asked for help returning to Vietnam.
“At their request and on an exceptional basis, we are facilitating the return of 12 Montagnard asylum seekers to Viet Nam’s Central Highlands after verifying that they had opted for it voluntarily,” she said in an email.
“The Government of Viet Nam has agreed to receive them and given assurances that it will not discriminate against or punish them,” she added. “It has also provided assurances that UNHCR will be able to visit them after their return home.”
According to Ms. Tan, the Montagnards “cited difficulties in Cambodia as reasons for wanting to return.”
Long Roukha, immigration police chief at the O’Yadaw border checkpoint in Ratanakkiri province, said the Montagnards arrived at the border at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, but were not authorized to cross.
“I will not allow those people to cross the border because they don’t have legal documentation,” Mr. Roukha said. “We have now asked for them to stay in the provincial town [Banlung City] for the night and contact the provincial authorities to ask for a permission letter.”
Contacted again at about 7:40 p.m., Ms. Tan said the Montagnards had made it through the checkpoint.
“As far as I know they have passed that point, so it is not an issue,” she said.
Most of the Montagnards that have entered Cambodia crossed into Ratanakkiri and in some cases spent weeks in the forest to avoid arrest.
In December, 13 Montagnards who had been hiding in the province reached Phnom Penh, and the government awarded them refugee status in March.
The success of the first group seemingly encouraged more Montagnards to enter Cambodia, but so far, no others have been recognized as refugees, or even allowed to register with the refugee department.
Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the 12 who returned to Vietnam on Thursday had originally fled to Thailand and made their way to Phnom Penh in April, hoping to be granted political asylum.
According to Mr. Thy, 19 other Montagnards who arrived in the capital from Thailand had already returned to Vietnam.
“I heard that those Montagnards had volunteered to return home and that no one forced them to go,” he said.
In June, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government did not believe the Montagnards in Cambodia were legitimate asylum seekers.
Neither General Sopheak nor Sok Phal, the head of the ministry’s immigration department, could be reached for comment Thursday.
However, Kerm Sarin, director of the refugee department, said he had received a letter from UNHCR about a week ago informing him that the 12 would be escorted to Vietnam.
In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch said Vietnamese authorities were operating a systematic program of arrest, detention and torture targeting the Montagnards, driving them across the border.
U.S.-based Montagnard rights groups claim their people have been persecuted since they sided with the U.S. during the First Indochina War.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)