About 100 Montagnards involuntarily repatriated to Vietnam last week after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees refused to grant them refugee status may now be allowed to go to the US, news reports said.
“We are investigating possibilities…but I want to emphasize that each person is being handled on a case-by-case basis,” Louis Lantner, counselor for public affairs at the US Embassy in Hanoi, told the Agence France Presse news agency on Thursday.
“About 100” people are being considered, Lantner added.
Police entered a refugee facility in Phnom Penh on July 20, hitting some Montagnards who did not want to leave, then escorting 94 of them back to Vietnam.
Rights groups have said some of the group may face persecution and torture in Vietnam, and the US State Department has said it is disappointed that they were sent back before other options could be considered.
Voice of America reported Wednesday that US and Vietnamese officials are discussing options that include resettling the Montagnards in the US, attributing the information to a spokesman at the US Embassy in Hanoi.
The spokesman reportedly told VOA that Hanoi “supports the review of the case.”
The US Embassy in Hanoi did not return repeated calls and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh declined comment.
The UNHCR has no information on the reported negotiations, said Inna Gladkova, UNHCR associate protection officer.
“We can’t refer them for resettlement because they are rejected. This would be against our procedures,” Gladkova said.
Gladkova said some of the Montagnards may have been mentally unprepared for the deportation because NGOs had given them false expectations that they would not be returned to Vietnam.
“The UNHCR has extended a great deal of effort and counseling to rejected asylum-seekers, preparing them for their return. But this was undermined by some NGOs and Montagnard [organizations] abroad, mainly in the US, who took part in counter-counseling, saying they would be protected from repatriation and would eventually be resettled in another country,” Gladkova said. “This is very unfortunate.”
She declined to name the NGOs, and NGOs in Phnom Penh working with the Montagnards declined comment.
Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said that if the 94 are being punished in the Central Highlands, she would welcome intervention from any country to help resettle them.
“On the other hand, I know well the Montagnard people really love their country, their land…and I would be extremely happy to hear that they were able to live in freedom in Vietnam,” she said.
Coghlan voiced concern “that such a horrible forced deportation would occur again,” and that the UNHCR would have to become involved if recognized refugees were forcibly deported.
One source familiar with the Montagnards said that on Wednesday afternoon in Site Two, a written “note verbale” from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the UNHCR was posted on the wall. It stated that recognized refugees who have not agreed to be resettled to a third country or to be repatriated to Vietnam have one month to change their minds.
Most people in Site Two have received refugee status but have rejected resettlement, the source said.
The UNHCR said a government letter was posted in Site Two, but declined immediate comment.
Long Visalo, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he was too busy to speak to a reporter.
The letter has prompted fears that recognized refugees will be forcibly returned to Vietnam.
“Any ultimatum which would lead to the involuntary return of recognized refugees, who are at risk of being abused and tortured in Vietnam, is in breach of Cambodia’s fundamental obligations under the Refugee Convention,” Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said in an e-mail.
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, did not answer repeated calls Thursday, and Ly Quang Bich, political counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy, could not be reached for comment.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)