More than a dozen Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia were repatriated to Vietnam this week after they failed to qualify for refugee status, and authorities in Phnom Penh say most of the nearly 160 other Montagnards living in capital city are likely to meet the same fate.
“Thirteen Montagnard asylum-seekers returned voluntarily to Vietnam earlier this week,” U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Vivian Tan told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The members of the group had either received negative decisions on their asylum applications or had withdrawn their applications before they could be assessed,” she added.
The group left Phnom Penh on Monday and crossed into Vietnam on Tuesday under escort from UNHCR officials, who also planned to check back in on the group to assess their wellbeing, Tan said.
“UNHCR escorted them up to the border before Vietnamese officials took over to bring them back to their villages in the Central Highlands,” she said. “We plan to visit them soon as agreed with the Vietnamese authorities.”
Currently, 156 Montagnards remain in Phnom Penh. While the evaluation for refugee status has yet to be concluded, Tan Sovichea, head of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, said most of those Montagnards would be sent back to Vietnam as they failed their initial interviews.
The answers provided by the asylum-seekers were irrelevant to political persecution, which makes up the grounds for granting refugee status, explained Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak.
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.
The Montagnards living in Phnom Penh are among the more than 200 who have fled their country and crossed the border into Cambodia seeking help from UNHCR, citing oppression by the Vietnamese government.
Rights groups say the Montagnards, many of whom are Christian, have been victims of persecution and repression in Vietnam. The Montagnards also backed the U.S. in the Vietnam War and some have suffered repercussions for this.
Reported by Vuthy Tha for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.