Vietnamese police visited a group of Montagnards in Phnom Penh on Tuesday in an effort to persuade them to return to Vietnam, where the asylum-seekers claim to have fled systematic government persecution, a member of the group said on Wednesday.
The U.N.’s refugee agency said it monitored the visit, and was “concerned” by it.
Pen Rolan, 27, who fled Vietnam last year and is one of about 170 Montagnards seeking refugee status in Phnom Penh, said about six Vietnamese police officers arrived at his temporary apartment with three Cambodian police officers and two U.N. officials.
“They wanted us to sign [a document promising] to return to Vietnam, but we did not agree to go,” Mr. Rolan said inside the apartment in Pur Senchey district, which he shares with a group of fellow Montagnards. “If we go back to Vietnam, they will arrest us and put us in prison.”
During the meeting, the Vietnamese police attempted to persuade the Montagnards present that they would not face persecution if they returned to their homeland, Mr. Rolan said.
“They told us that if we went back, they would not mistreat us, but my companions were sent back, arrested and put in prison for 10 to 20 years,” Mr. Rolan said. “I don’t believe them—they are tricking us.”
The Vietnamese police left when the Montagnards rejected their request to return home as well as their offer of food.
“They wanted to give us gifts, but we did not take them because we were afraid they had put poison in them,” Mr. Rolan said, adding that the group was now worried about their safety in Cambodia.
“We are afraid the Vietnamese police will try to arrest us and send us back to Vietnam.”
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also voiced concern over the unexpected visit.
“UNHCR did not organize or support the visit that involved officials from both countries…but our staff was present to monitor the situation. We were told the purpose of the visit was to distribute some assistance to the asylum-seekers. There was no forced return,” Ms. Tan said in an email.
“However, UNHCR is concerned as we believe that no asylum-seeker should be obliged to meet representatives of a government from a country against which they have alleged a fear of persecution,” she said.
Ms. Tan said the Vietnamese officers visited just one location and did not know how many asylum-seekers had been present at the time.
Kem Sarin, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, declined to comment, while Tann Sovichea, director of the ministry’s refugee department, could not be reached.
The Montagnards, a mostly Christian group of indigenous minorities concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, say they routinely face religious and political persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government.
An initial group of 13 Montagnards who crossed into Cambodia in late 2014—setting off the latest wave of Montagnards fleeing Vietnam—were flown to the Philippines last month after receiving refugee status in Phnom Penh. They are set to be resettled in an unconfirmed third country.
Over the past year and a half, at least 47 Montagnards, many of whom initially sought shelter among ethnic Jarai communities in Ratanakkiri province, have been arrested and forcibly returned to Vietnam. About 30 have voluntarily returned.
More than 170 are still waiting for their asylum claims to be assessed in Phnom Penh. One member of the group committed suicide in his UNHCR-provided residence last month.
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