sen monorom district, Mondolkiri province – UN officials here are urging a delegation of Montagnard rights advocates visiting from the US to be cautious with their message that resettlement overseas might be the only option for some 400 asylum seekers.
The delegation’s visit comes as representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees try to negotiate a solution with Vietnam that will allow the Montagnards to safely return home.
“Resettlement [in a third country] is only one of many options,“ said James Kovar, the UNHCR’s team leader at the Mondolkiri camp, one of two sites in Cambodia where Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam’s Central Highlands are being housed. “On all sides we’ve asked that the rhetoric be toned down, that the options be presented in a balanced fashion.”
Several members of US-based Montagnard rights groups arrived in Cambodia Friday with the clear message that repatriation to Vietnam would not be possible for Montagnards who fled a Vietnamese government crackdown in the Central Highlands earlier this year.
Delegation members, including a Montagnard who resettled in the US in the mid-1980s, traveled to the Mondolkiri camp Saturday and are interviewing Montagnards there.
Carl Regan, director of Save the Montagnard People, said several asylum seekers had told him they would not return to Vietnam under any circumstances. Other Montagnards interviewed Sunday repeated this, saying at best they would face deep suspicion, if not heavy persecution, if they return to their homes.
But Kovar argued against prematurely limiting resolutions to the Montagnard asylum seekers, who have come to Cambodia in different groups over recent months.
“People are thinking about [resettlement] as an option. There are people who ask ‘How can that happen?’ And then they want to know specifics. There isn’t a single person whose prepared to make a decision about their future yet,” Kovar said.
From the outset of talks with Hanoi, the UNHCR has pushed voluntary repatriation as the preferred solution for Montagnards under its protection in Cambodia.
But the UNHCR, which will meet Vietnamese officials in Hanoi at the end of the month, is first demanding access to the Central Highlands to monitor the return of Montagnards who agree to go back to their home villages.
However, Regan said he thought talks with Hanoi would likely fail, even at this initial stage. “The circumstances in this case make repatriation very unlikely. I have no confidence the current Vietnamese government will agree to the conditions UNHCR imposes,” Regan said.
Vietnamese diplomats could not be reached for government Sunday, but Hanoi officials have called the Montagnards illegal immigrants who should be returned to Vietnam, and added that they would not be persecuted if they are repatriated.
Regan and other delegation members say they hope their report on their visit will generate US Congressional interest. Some 4,000 Montagnards live in the US, and as the events of the last several months have played out, concern in Montagnard communities has grown.
Already the US has resettled 38 Montagnards who fled Vietnam earlier this year. As the number of hill tribe asylum seekers quickly grew, in March and April, alternate solutions were sought.
But despite ongoing talks between UNHCR and Vietnam, and a reported improvement of the situation in the Central Highlands, Montagnards continue to cross the border into Cambodia.
One camp inhabitant expressed concern about repatriation, even if Vietnam allows the UNHCR into the Central Highlands. “In front of the UN the Vietnamese talk sweetly. After the UN leaves, Vietnamese authorities will treat us badly again,” the asylum seeker said.
Earlier this month, 103 Montagnards arrived in the Mondolkiri camp, bringing the total to 322. Many of those were family members of Montagnards already in Cambodia, Kovar said.
The UNHCR is still interviewing 80 of the new arrivals to determine their status. Kovar said the remaining 243 have been granted person of concern status.
Since operations began here, Kovar said, 35 people failed to meet UNHCR criteria and were not given person of concern status. They have since left the camp, he said.