Cambodian officials said they are withholding a decision to grant refugee status to three Montagnards who fled from Vietnam to Cambodia, RFA�s Khmer service reports.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notified Cambodian authorities Dec. 23 that the three Montagnards�currently held in UNHCR custody�have met all the criteria for refugee status and requested the government�s assistance with moving them to Phnom Penh.

�UNHCR reiterates the need for [the refugees�] immediate transportation to Phnom Penh in order for further processing and their subsequent speedy resettlement to take place,� a letter from the UNHCR to Cambodian co-minister of the Interior Sar Kheng dated Dec. 23 said.

However, Cambodian officials responded Dec. 30 with accusations that the UNHCR sent officers to Vietnam on a mission to bring the Montagnards to Cambodia. The UNHCR has not responded to this claim. Cambodian officials also said the decision will have to be made by the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ratanakiri Provincial governor H.E. Kham Khoeun told RFA Dec. 29 that the UNHCR refused to allow Cambodian police to enter the area to question the Montagnards. �I am not happy with the UNHCR and I sent a letter of complaint to top leaders of the Cambodian Interior Ministry to justify the matter,� he said.

While the UNHCR has not formally responded to the claim, an anonymous source at the UNHCR rejected the accusation by saying that "the UNHCR did nothing wrong regarding the Mongtagnards. We allowed provincial police to enter our refugee camp twice for interviews. Why do the government and the provincial governor accuse us of not allowing them to enter the camp?"

The three Vietnamese Montagnards fled Cambodia from central Vietnam in November and are currently being sheltered at the UNHCR office in the Ban Lung district of Ratanakiri Province in northeast Cambodia.

Recently U.N. human rights envoy Peter Leupretch condemned Cambodian authorities over the forced secret deportation of Vietnamese Montagnards from Cambodia back to Vietnam, citing a violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees. Human rights groups have also expressed fears over deportees facing persecution by Vietnamese authorities.

Following the Vietnam War, the predominantly Christian Montagnards, who aided U.S. troops during the war, saw many of their churches closed and religious books forbidden by Vietnamese authorities. Today the same intolerance for religious freedom exists for the Montagnards, who live mostly in Vietnam�s Central Highlands.

In a statement Dec. 2, Human Rights Watch urged international donors to step up pressure on Vietnam to improve its �dramatically worsening human rights record��including �persecution, unlawful arrest, torture, and other mistreatment of Montagnards who have voluntarily or forcibly been returned from Cambodia to Vietnam.�

Several thousand Montagnards staged protests in February 2001 to call for independence, return of ancestral land, and religious freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive show of force, deploying thousands of police and soldiers and arrested hundreds of indigenous people in the Central Highlands.

More than 1,000 highlanders fled to Cambodia, where they were sheltered in two refugee camps run by the UNHCR. In March 2002, Cambodia authorized the processing for resettlement in the United States of more than 900 Montagnard asylum-seekers who had fled to Cambodia over the preceding year. Cambodia has now closed down its refugee camps, sealed its borders with Vietnam, and announced that any new arrivals will be immediately deported.

Between July and November 2003, at least 60 Vietnamese Montagnards escaped from Vietnam to the jungle of northeast Cambodia. #####


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