The US government Monday praised Cambodia for its role in the resettlement of more than 900 Montagnard refugees on US soil, after a series of events which battered relations between Washington, Phnom Penh and Hanoi, Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday.
The first group of refugees flew out of Pochentong Airport Monday, ending 15 months of turmoil which started with a crackdown by the Vietnamese government.
The group was followed Tuesday by another 50, and officials expect one flight of refugees a day through the end of the week. The resettlement is expected to be completed by mid-July, officials with the International Organization for Migration said.
“We certainly welcome the commitment of the Cambodian government to this humanitarian resettlement effort, and appreciate their living up to the international obligations to offer, first, asylum, and trust that they will continue to support that policy,” Deputy US State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters. The US offered asylum to the refugees after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees pulled out of a volunteer repatriation program with Vietnam and Cambodia, accusing both sides of violating the terms of the accord.
The mainly Christian Montagnards began fleeing a crackdown on ethnic minority unrest in the Central Highlands last year.
One of those who took part in the February 2001 demonstrations said Tuesday he feared he would be arrested after police seized his house in Dak Lak province last year, so he fled to Cambodia with his family.
He described a life in Vietnam of religious persecution and job blacklisting before the demonstrations, saying, “We could not worship, everything was a big problem,” and remains so now.
“Right now, we don’t have a choice [but to go to the US],” he said, though he explained there was some reluctance to resettle. He said he was worried that going to the US would mean losing his struggle for an independent Montagnard state.
“When we were living in Vietnam we had problems and we could not live with the Vietnamese government, so we left. Now we must leave Cambodia because the government has not abided by the [international refugee] treaty it signed,” the Montagnard said.
The Cambodian government has been criticized by human rights groups and some diplomats in Phnom Penh for trying to close Cambodia to future asylum seekers. Both UNHCR camps were shut down—and one looted and burned—as soon as the Montagnards living there were evacuated to a garment factory in Phnom Penh. Senior government officials maintain that anyone caught crossing the border is an illegal immigrant and will be returned to Vietnam.
“While Cambodia deserves credit for trying to find a solution for the Montagnards who are currently in the refugee camp in Phnom Penh, we have serious concerns about reports of hundreds of Montagnards now trying to seek asylum in Cambodia who are being deported back to Vietnam,” a representative of the US-based Human Rights Watch said via e-mail.