The fate of 107 Montagnards denied protection by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees remained unclear Monday as US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann appealed to the government to cease efforts to deport them to Vietnam.
Wiedemann said he asked the Interior Ministry over the weekend not to hunt down and deport the Montagnards who were denied protection. “I said, ‘I know they were screened out [by the UNHCR] but we don’t know how they are going to be treated in Vietnam….I asked the Ministry of the Interior to be magnanimous.’”
But ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak said Monday the government would deport all illegal immigrants. “We have not changed any policies on this,” the general said.
A plan to repatriate some 340 Montagnards granted protective status at camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces stalled Friday when Vietnam refused to allow the UNHCR into the Central Highlands to monitor their return, Khieu Sopheak said. Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng said at a ministry meeting Monday that some camp residents were not Montagnards. But Khieu Sopheak said some of the people Sar Kheng was referring to might have been among the 107 asylum-seekers rejected by the UN.
Meanwhile, a US-based activist charged that the UNHCR had changed its criteria for granting protection during July, leading to rejection of the 107.
“UNHCR has sold out its principals for some sort of political deal made at a high level,” Carl Regan of Save the Montagnard People, who visited Mondolkiri in July, said in an e-mail.
UNHCR officials said their criteria remain fixed by a 1951 treaty that defines a refugee as someone who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted” in his or her home country “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion.”
They declined to comment on any specific cases or generalize about the Montagnards denied protection, though Wiedemann said some were hoping to resettle in the US, and a small number might have been Cambodians posing as Montagnards.
Cambodian authorities swept through the Mondolkiri camp Friday looking for people who had been denied protective status by the UNHCR, said James Kovar, UNHCR team leader for the site. But they had all left the camp already, he said.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)