sen monorom, Mondolkiri province – There remains a strong Vietnamese presence at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees camp here—and observers fear Vietnamese authorities, who maintain that every Montagnard asylum seeker should be returned to Vietnam, are still trying to disrupt potential resettlement efforts.
“Family” visits to the camp by Vietnamese officials and relatives of the Montagnards have continued despite widespread condemnation from the UNHCR and others in the international community after nearly 450 Vietnamese mobbed the site March 21 in an attempt to convince Montagnards to return to Vietnam.
While Cambodian officials claim the Vietnamese only wanted to see their loved ones, UN staff here say they were threatened and “manhandled” as the crowd pushed its way into the camp.
“The Vietnamese come here many, many times, and we don’t like it,” one would-be refugee who has been in the Mondolkiri camp for nearly a year now said. “They have taken many people.”
The Montagnards began arriving in droves in Cambodia’s northeast in February of 2001, after unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands prompted a government crackdown.
At least 130 Montagnards have left the camp for Vietnam since the UNHCR suspended its repatriation procedure last month. While these returns have been called “voluntary,” even some UNHCR officials say some asylum seekers have been pressured to return.
“The Montagnards are asylum seekers, and based on that assumption they have the right to three things—voluntary repatriation, settlement in a country of first asylum or settlement in a country of third asylum,” a US embassy official said Thursday. “We have always supported the core principal that the repatriation be voluntary.”
During a media briefing Wednesday in Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the US did not need Vietnam’s permission to resettle the Montagnards because Vietnam did not have “the right of approval of any of these” Montagnards
An official from the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh could not comment Thursday on Boucher’s statement, but said the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had released a statement Wednesday saying the Vietnamese government “has not received any official documents on a US plan for resettlement.”
The Cambodian government would consider the US offer to resettle up to 905 Montagnards living in the Mondolkiri camp and another UNHCR camp in Ratanakkiri province, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday.
On Thursday, the US embassy sent six officials to the Mondolkiri camp, saying they had “security” concerns in the wake of the March 21 incident and they wanted observe the Montagnard situation in general, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said Thursday. “I thought it prudent to have observers from the embassy at the camp,” the ambassador said.
The Ministry of Interior sent at least one official to Ratanakkiri on Thursday to interview provincial authorities. The official will also visit Mondolkiri, according to a Ministry of Interior spokesman, who official did not provide any further details.
It was quiet Thursday in the Mondolkiri camp, an orderly block of thatched roof huts which sit in rows on a hillside outside of the provincial capital of Sen Monorom. Several dozen Montagnards stood and watched as three Cambodian police officers tried to take the film from a visiting journalist’s camera before ordering the photographer and two other reporters to leave the camp.
The Mondolkiri camp has been closed for months “to everyone except the Vietnamese,” according to one local resident—a claim that has been repeated many times by the Montagnard asylum seekers. Journalists have been thrown out of the camp on at least two other occasions.
Following the UNHCR’s abandonment of repatriation efforts, third-country resettlement for the Montagnards become a serious option. The US, which accepted at least 38 Montagnard asylum seekers in 2001, appears again to be taking the lead in resettlement efforts. The Cambodian government, perhaps expecting stiff resistance from the Vietnamese, has yet to give approval to any US plan.
The US has not yet even received a response from the Cambodian government on their request to resettle the Montagnards, but US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, speaking Thursday, said his country was still involved in the case.
Officials from Vietnam’s Doc Lok province spent Tuesday morning meeting Mondolkiri provincial authorities here in a continuation of talks between the two remaining sides.
What remains, activists and observers say, are immediate concerns for the safety of the Montagnards in the camp.
The March 21 incident showed that despite the UNHCR’s presence, camp security can be breached, activists say. But any decision to move the more than 500 inhabitants of the Mondolkiri camp to Phnom Penh could be a troublesome venture. The first 100 km out of Sen Monorom are along isolate roads not far from the Vietnamese border.
But Wiedemann, who said it is still too early to discuss his country’s role in transporting the Montagnards from Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri, also said Thursday he was not concerned about the security on the road.
(Additional reporting by David Kihara)