More than a week after 94 Montagnards were forcibly returned to Vietnam, prompting concern from the US and human rights groups, the UN refugee agency has announced it will conduct a monitoring trip to the Central Highlands.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees regional representative Hasim Utkan will meet with those Montagnards repatriated against their will on July 20, as well as 43 who voluntarily returned earlier this year, UNHCR associate protection officer Inna Gladkova said Sunday. Exact dates and details for the trip are still being worked out, she added.
In a press briefing in Geneva on Friday, UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said Utkan will be accompanied by a Vietnamese UNHCR staff member.
“The representative will be accompanied by a national staff member who has already made five trips to the region to monitor the well-being of the voluntary returnees and found nothing to cause disquiet,” Pagonis said, according to a UN statement.
Those five previous UNHCR monitoring trips have been heavily criticized by human rights organization.
“We have received reports in the past that monitoring [by UNHCR] has been conducted in the presence of local officials,” a Human Rights Watch spokesperson said Sunday.
“As a result, returnees have not felt comfortable speaking,” the spokesperson added. “What we’d like to see is a more continual UNHCR presence in the highlands rather than a one-off presence.”
While the refugee agency has said it has no proof that returnees have been persecuted, Human Rights Watch says it has documented numerous instances in which Montagnards who returned to Vietnam after fleeing to Cambodia have been arrested, jailed and threatened.
Police wielding electric batons entered a refugee facility in Phnom Penh July 20, hitting some of the Montagnards who did not want to leave, then physically forcing them into buses and escorting them to Vietnam, UNHCR and relief workers said.
Pagonis said five UNHCR staff members at the site did not see police and “did not observe anyone being beaten, kicked or electric batons being used to shock people.”
Pagonis also reported that UNHCR and Cambodian officials were scheduled to leave for Ratanakkiri on Friday to pick up 34 Montagnard asylum-seekers who have been hiding in the jungle.
Pen Bonnar, human rights group Adhoc’s representative in Ratanakkiri, said Sunday the asylum-seekers are broken up into three groups in O’Yadaw district and UNHCR staff planned to take some of them out of the jungle today.
However, 11 Montagnards have moved to a new spot to find food after waiting 20 days for help and local villagers and officials do not know where they went, Pen Bonnar said.
“They lacked food because they had waited a long time,” he said.
In addition, UNHCR staff will have to use a boat Monday to get to a second group of 17 asylum-seekers.