The US Senate’s committee on foreign appropriations has asked the US State Department to determine the number of Montagnards in Cambodia who are seeking asylum in the US, citing concern over the department’s decision to end “second-chance” interviews in Phnom Penh for those rejected by the UN refugee agency.
In a report submitted to the US State Department, the committee asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “to submit a report by March 1, 2008, on the estimated number of Montagnards who are refugees in Cambodia and are seeking to resettle in the United States, and their reasons for departing Vietnam.”
The Committee’s report accompanies the State Department’s foreign appropriations bill for 2008 and was issued on July 10. The bill helps determine US foreign aid.
David Carle, a spokesman for the committee’s chairman, Senator Patrick Leahy, wrote in an e-mail Thursday that the request was motivated by the State Department’s decision in May to cancel second-chance interviews for Montagnards denied refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Under the new policy, UN-rejected Montagnards must travel back to Vietnam, then visit Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi to meet with US officials if they want an interview.
“[Leahy] is concerned about any refugees who may have a fear of persecution, and he wants more information about it,” Carle wrote.
While the committee believes the situation for Montagnards in Vietnam has improved since the 1970s, “there is concern that there still are incidents of discrimination and mistreatment of Montagnards in Vietnam,” Carle added.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle has previously said that improved rights conditions for Montagnards in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and improved access to the region by outside monitors, had motivated the policy change. Daigle said Thursday that the US Embassy maintains its position.
Washington-based Refugees International and New York-based Human Rights Watch have claimed that returned Montagnards still risk persecution.
One Human Rights Watch official said there is evidence of Montagnards who have returned to Vietnam “being threatened, harassed, beaten and detained” by Vietnamese authorities.
“I seriously question implementing an in-country [second chance interview] system for people who feel they are being persecuted,” the Rights Watch official said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Inge Sturkenboom said monitoring visits by her agency “found no irregularities” amongst the returned Montagnards who were interviewed.
She added that there are currently 319 Montagnards in Cambodia, including both asylum-seekers and recognized refugees. Sturkenboom said she could not reveal how many had been granted refugee status for reasons of confidentiality.
Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam said Montagnards had nothing to fear on returning to Vietnam.
“Vietnam doesn’t cause any difficulties for the Montagnards,” he said, though he added: “If the United States agrees to take them, Vietnam agrees to it.”
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)