Phnom Penh is set to repatriate 13 Montagnard asylum-seekers to their native Vietnam after they failed to meet requirements for gaining refugee status in Cambodia, a nongovernmental organization that monitors hill tribes said Tuesday.
Grace Bui, a volunteer with the U.S.-based rights group Montagnards Assistance Project, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the 13 who would be sent back on Wednesday were among 16 whose requests for asylum are were denied by the Cambodian government in June.
"The Cambodian government wanted to deport all 16 people, but I heard they had to postpone this because of public disapproval,” Bui told RFA.
“But this morning, August 8, a refugee in Cambodia wrote to me and said that there would be 13 people deported to Vietnam tomorrow and that the UN is working on the procedure because the UN is responsible for returning anyone who was deported back to their home. I don’t know when the other three will be deported," Bui added.
The Cambodia Daily reported on Monday that opposition from the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which has representatives based in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, prompted Cambodia to delay the repatriation of the 16.
“We had planned to send the 16 people to Vietnam, but the plan was suspended because the U.N. protested against our decision to not offer refugee status for those people,” the English-language daily quoted Houl Sarith, head of the Cambodian Interior Ministry's application office for asylum-seekers.
Bui told RFA that if all 16 Montagnards are returned to Vietnam, there will only be about 20 of the refugees from the Central Highlands of Vietnam left in Cambodia. Other sources have said that 49 Montagnards remain in Cambodia awaiting their fate.
The Montagnards living in Phnom Penh are among hundreds who have fled their country and crossed the border into Cambodia seeking help from UNHCR, citing oppression by the Vietnamese government, religious persecution of the mainly Christian minority and expropriation of their land.
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.Roughly 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar, reside in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Early in the last decade, thousands in the region staged violent protests against the confiscation of their ancestral lands and religious controls, prompting a brutal crackdown by Vietnamese security forces that saw hundreds of Montagnards charged with national security crimes.
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, according to the Montagnards Assistance Project. It said some 250 Montagnards had gathered in Thailand as of April.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Lillian Andemicael.