Seventeen ethnic Montagnard Christians who fled Vietnam earlier this year to seek refuge from alleged persecution voluntarily returned home on Tuesday, discouraged after waiting for more than three months to be granted refugee status, a rights advocate and United Nations spokesperson said.
Immigration officers from the Cambodian Ministry of Interior transported the group of 13 adults and four children from the town of Banlung in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province to the international border in O’ Ya Dao district so they could fill out paperwork to return to Vietnam.
The day before, officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) escorted the group to from the capital Phnom Penh to Banlung, where they spent the night.
They had been staying in Phnom Penh as the UNHRC tried to find them a permanent third country in which to live, after they entered Cambodia illegally through remote Ratanakiri province.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator of human rights group Adhoc in Ratanakiri, said the return of the 17 was the sixth instance of repatriations among the more than 200 Montagnards who had fled to Cambodia from Vietnam since the end of 2014.
He said the return of five previous groups of Montagnards since July indicated a failure to secure them political asylum.
The 17 Montagnards, who sought political asylum based on allegations that Vietnam denied them religious rights and persecuted them, intended to go to a third country.
“But when they got no results after waiting a long time [in Cambodia], they changed their minds and instead requested they be sent back to their homeland,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s regional spokesperson, said one member of the group indicated that the 17 wanted to return to Vietnam because they missed their homes in Chu Prong district, Gai Lai province, in the country’s Central Highlands.
“I have been here for more than three months, and no one has forced us to [return],” the Montagnard said, according to Tan.
The Cambodian government, which considers the Montagnards illegal economic immigrants, has set a deadline for them to leave the country by Jan. 10 if the UNHCR cannot find a third nation in which they can permanently settle.
The government also set a deadline for other Montagnards in Phnom Penh, whose refugee claims it has refused to process, to return to Vietnam by early February.
Roughly a dozen Montagnards have been registered in Cambodia as refugees, while others have returned to Vietnam on their own or been forcibly deported, and the rest remain in Phnom Penh.
Reported by Sok Ratha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.