VN Grants UN Access to Central Highlands

Officials with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will begin visiting Vietnam’s Central Highlands “as soon as possible” in an effort to start repatriating some 1,000 Montagnards under UN care in Cambodia.

The visits are the result of an agreement signed Monday between the UNHCR, Vietnam and Cambodia to end what has be­come an emotional refugee situation which began early last year after Montagnards fleeing unrest in Vietnam began arriving in Cambodia.

Vietnam immediately demanded the Montagnards be returned, but Cambodia gave them temporary asylum.

Though repatriation talks be­gan several months ago, it wasn’t until Monday that Vietnam agreed to give the UNHCR access to the Central Highlands to monitor the Montagnards’ return.

UNHCR visits prior to the Mon­tagnards’ return—which UNHCR regional representative Jahanshah Assadi called an essential part of the agreement— could “in principle” begin immediately, but visitation requests have to first be submitted to Vietnamese authorities.

Monday’s agreement also requires the UNHCR to give the Vietnamese personal information about each possible returnee, including photographs and de­tails on their relatives in Vietnam.

Lists of possible returnees would first have to be cleared by Vietnamese authorities before the UNHCR could escort any Mon­tagnards home.

Assadi said after repatriation, the UNHCR would be allowed follow-up visits that would be “meaningful and credible.”

Despite the resettlement in the US of 28 Montagnard asylum seekers last year and an apparent willingness by the US government to take more, repatriation quickly became the top option for the Montagnards.

“The focus at this point is people going home and there was no discussion of resettlement as an option,” Assadi said.

Many have said in the past they do not want to go back to Viet­nam, hoping instead to also go to the US. UNHCR officials stress that any repatriation to Vietnam will be voluntary. Assadi said Monday it was too early to talk about other options.

“We’re trying not to speculate…on what happens in the future,” Assadi said.

The initial visits will allow the UNHCR to get a clearer picture of why the Montagnards fled in the first place.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding, misinformation regarding the situation in the Central Highlands,” Assadi said.

Neither resettlement in another country nor allowing the Montagnards to stay in Cambodia was discussed during Monday’s meeting. Cambodian’s delegation was led by Long Visalo, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Meeting participants also did not discuss reports of Montagnards being forcibly deported by Cambodian authorities before they could be put under UN protection, Assadi said.


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