UN Official Hopes Refugees Will Go Peacefully

As a Friday deadline approaches for Montagnard refugees to accept third country resettlement or re­turn to Vietnam, a UN High Com­missioner for Refugees official ex­pressed hope that none would be forcibly repatriated.

“We’re hopeful that the refuse­niks will make a decision according to their own best interests,” UNHCR spokeswoman Deb­orah Backus said Monday.

“We’re also expectant that there may not be any refuseniks by the deadline,” she said.

Only a few weeks ago the number of refugees refusing resettlement or repatriation was almost 40, but “the number has decreased dramatically,” Backus said. “The vast majority of them have agreed to resettlement.”

A letter from the Ministry of For­eign Affairs dated July 26 gave refugees one month to make their decision or be returned to Vietnam.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak reiterated the government’s position on Monday.

“We still observe the 1951 convention,” he said. “They are obliged to select a third country.”

Jesuit Refugee Service director Denise Coghlan said that even if any of the refugees continued re­fusing resettlement or repatriation, they would likely remain in Cam­bodia past the Friday deadline while the government decides on how to proceed.

Asked about forced repatriation, Backus remained optimistic that it would not be necessary.

“We’re not planning for a return at this time,” she said. Backus ad­ded that most of the refugees refusing resettlement were doing so for political reasons.

“The UNHCR is a refugee protection agency,” she said. “We’re not an agency that is capable of changing their situation in Viet­nam.”

Five Montagnards were sentenced Friday by a Vietnamese court to as much as six years in prison for allegedly organizing groups of Montagnard refugees to cross the Cambodian border, ac­cording to news reports.

Of the 502 people currently staying in Phnom Penh’s UNHCR refu­gee sites, 434 are currently recognized as refugees, Backus said.


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