Cambodia repatriated 16 Montagnard asylum seekers to Vietnam on Thursday after they failed to meet requirements for gaining refugee status in Cambodia, Cambodian authorities said.
The 16, who agreed to return to Vietnam afte exhausting their appeals, were accompanied by officials from Cambodia and the U.N High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) until they were handed over to Vietnamese authorities, a Cambodian immigration spokesman said.
“Cambodia did not deport them. The UNHCR arranged their return as these [Montagnards] were not granted refugee status," Tan Sovichea, spokesman and director of the Immigration Department’s Refugee Office of the Cambodian Ministry of Interior, told RFA's Khmer Service.
"When they filed their appeals, perhaps they gave up hope as they didn’t have additional supporting evidence. That is why they voluntarily agreed to return while the UN was making arrangements for them,” he added.
Tan Sovichea added that the UNHCR had been working with Vietnamese authorities to ensure that the Montagnards would be safely returned and protected from persecution for their attempt to flee the country.
Cambodian authorities were scheduled to return to the capital Phnom Penh upon reaching the Cambodia-Vietnam border, , while the UNHCR officials would continue the trip with Montagnards and Vietnamese authorities until they reach the location where the would-be asylum seekers would be settled down.
The UNHCR in Cambodia was not immediately available for comment.
Since 2001, at least three thousand Vietnamese Montagnards have crossed the border into Cambodia via Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces to seek refugee status, including a large wave that came in 2014.
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar. The group of Montagnards who fled to Phnom Penh comes from the mountainous region of Gia Lai, Dak Lak, and Kon Tum provinces in central Vietnam, which border Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces of Cambodia.
More than 50 Montagnard asylum seekers, many of whom are Christian, fled Cambodia to Thailand in early 2017 amid fears of forced repatriation to Vietnam, where they complain of discrimination and persecution at the hands of local authorities, according to U.S.-based rights group Montagnards Assistance Project. It said some 250 Montagnards had gathered in Thailand as of April.
Reported by Sothearin Yeang for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.