Plans to repatriate some 400 Montagnards under UN protection in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces have been halted by Vietnam’s refusal to let the UN High Commissioner for Refugees into the Central Highlands to monitor the return of hill tribe people who fled to Cambodia.
“It is disappointing…but at this point of time the voluntary repatriation plan is on hold. Access for us was a key issue,” said Kirsi Vaatamoinen, UNHCR’s officer in charge in Phnom Penh.
Vietnamese officials on Friday refused UNHCR access to the Central Highlands following two days of meetings between the agency, Vietnam and Cambodia in Hanoi, Reuters reported. The Vietnamese government offered no explanation for this refusal, according to Reuters.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has said in recent days the Montagnards—especially those who failed to qualify for UN protection—should be repatriated, “the sooner the better.”
On Friday, Sar Kheng again said the Montagnards would go back, and that the government was discussing how this should be done, Reuters reported.
But Vaatamoinen said she hoped the government would continue its policy of allowing the Montagnards refuge in Cambodia until a solution is found.
“We trust they will maintain their position on our giving protection to these people,” she said.
The 107 Montagnards without UN protection have left the Mondolkiri camp, she said. The person of concern status of the remaining 253 Montagnards was being checked Friday by provincial authorities, according to James Kovar, UNHCR’s team leader at that site.
The US-based Human Rights Watch criticized UNHCR for determining the protective status of the asylum seekers “prematurely,” when virtually no information is known about the conditions those without person of concern status would have to return to in the Central Highlands.
Montagnards from Vietnam began fleeing to Cambodia following a government crackdown in the Central Highlands. Those seeking asylum here described massive religious persecution of the almost all-Christian hill tribes, and accused the Vietnamese government of land-grabbing.