The repatriation of Montagnards who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands for Cambodia in recent months depends largely on the UN being given access to the asylum seekers once they return home, an official for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Thursday.
This comes less than a week before UNHCR Regional Representative Jahanshah Assadi is expected to return to Hanoi to continue talks with authorities there over the possible return of some 250 Montagnards under UN care in Cambodia—a solution sought now by both the UNHCR and Cambodia.
“In the end we have to have unhindered monitoring access to the returnees,” said John Farvolden, the UNHCR’s country director for Cambodia.
Montagnards who fled to Cambodia must have a safe place to return home to and must not be forced back to Vietnam, Farvolden said.
“For UNHCR to be involved, these are the universal standards,” he said. “The first durable solution to any refugee influx is voluntary repatriation, and I stress the word voluntary.”
Vietnam has agreed that the UNHCR should be present to monitor the return of asylum Montagnards, but has not given permission for the UNHCR’s presence, Reuters reported Thursday.
Reuters reported Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Phan Thuy Thanh, as saying Wednesday that “If the UNHCR has a proposal to visit localities of Vietnam, that proposal will be considered and settled in accordance with the arrangements of the locality.”
The US earlier resettled 38 Montagnards in the US state of North Carolina after they left Vietnam. Montagnards who crossed the border in the subsequent exodus are now being housed in two separate camps—one in Mondolkiri and the other in Ratanakkiri—while the UNHCR works to determine their status.
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann visited the 54 Montagnards in Ratanakkiri Wednesday, saying they would not be returned to Vietnam until they were guaranteed safety, according to Reuters.
All have been granted “person of concern” status by UNHCR—rather than be classified as refugees—while UN staff negotiate some sort of resolution to their plight, Farvolden said.
Montagnards interviewed in May at the Mondolkiri camp said they had fled religious persecution and land rights abuses in their native provinces, and all said they did not want to return home because they feared retribution by Vietnamese authorities.
But a UNHCR official quoted Thursday by Reuters said the agency didn’t “see a founded fear of persecution” based on conversations with the asylum seekers.