A group of 16 Montagnard asylum-seekers who fled to Cambodia from Vietnam over the past two years returned to their home country on Tuesday after failing to secure refugee status in Phnom Penh, an Interior Ministry official said on Wednesday.
The group returned to Vietnam via Ratanakkiri province in the morning under the supervision of an official from the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR), according to Chea Bunthoeun, the deputy provincial police chief in charge of immigration.
“Sixteen Montagnards, including three women and three children, were sent to Vietnam through the O’Yadaw International Checkpoint. It was coordinated by UNHCR officials,” he said. “They agreed to go back to their homeland voluntarily and they were accompanied by a Japanese UNHCR officer.”
Tan Sovichea, director of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, said the Montagnards, who left their temporary accommodations in Phnom Penh on Monday, included individuals who did not qualify as refugees and those who had not formally applied for asylum.
“One person volunteered to go back, nine people were provided preliminary counseling but did not meet conditions to continue the procedure, and six people could have been eligible for the procedure but did not apply as refugees,” he said.
Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s regional spokeswoman, confirmed that the asylum-seekers returned to Vietnam on Tuesday but declined to comment further.
Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said all but one of the Montagnards’ refugee applications had been rejected.
“Of the group, one hadn’t done his process and he asked to go back. The others were refused any further step in the refugee process,” she said by email. “The Cambodian government told them that they would not be accepted refugees in Cambodia.”
Ms. Coghlan said that as far as she knew, members of the group had not faced particularly severe persecution in Vietnam.
“They suffered from generalised religious and ethnic persecution. For those people I was not unduly concerned,” she said.
The Montagnards—a predominantly Christian minority group indigenous to Vietnam’s Central Highlands—say they have faced religious and political persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government. Hundreds have fled to Cambodia and Thailand in recent years, fearing arrest.
Released earlier this week, an Amnesty International report entitled “Prisons Within Prisons: Torture and Ill Treatment of Prisoners of Conscience in Viet Nam,” states that Montagnards are among the groups unfairly targeted for arrest and abuse in Vietnam’s prisons.
The status of the nearly 200 Montagnard asylum-seekers living in Phnom Penh remains uncertain, with the government setting and then pushing back multiple deadlines for their expulsion. Vietnamese police paid a visit to members of the group last month in an effort to convince them to return home.
Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said the 16 would not have left Cambodia if they had genuinely feared for their safety.
“If they were hurt [in Vietnam], they would not have wanted to go back,” he said.