A group of Vietnamese refugees, most of whom fled their home country because of religious persecution, are facing repatriation after the Cambodian government on Tuesday closed a center operated by the United Nations’ refugee agency in Phnom Penh.
Several members of the Montagnard ethnic group said they were unsure of what reprisals they would face upon their return to Vietnam’s Central Highlands, where they say they have endured land confiscation and repression at the hands of the single-party communist government.
Spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Koy Kuong said that Montagnard refugees who had not been given refugee status and accepted by a third country for resettlement would be required to return home.
"Today is the last day, the day that the site has to be completely shut down," he said, adding that no new center would be allowed to open in the future.
Fifty of the 75 asylum-seekers at the center were sent to Canada last week for resettlement and five others will be sent to the U.S., according to Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Ten of the remaining 20 will be housed in Phnom Penh until a third country agrees to accept them for resettlement, but the last ten did not qualify for refugee status and will return to Vietnam, Mahhecic said.
Fear of return
Last year the Cambodian government announced plans to close the center on Jan. 1, saying it drew would-be refugees from around the region, but extended the deadline to Feb. 15.
The government also contends that Vietnam has developed economically and that the Montagnards no longer face the repression they did when they left the country by the thousands in 2001, making it safe for their return.
"It is time for us to close the refugee center because Vietnam has no war or armed conflict, and it is not necessary to have the refugee centre in our country," Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters in December.
But one Montagnard refugee, who requested anonymity, said group members continue to fear government retribution upon their return.
“Tomorrow we are going to leave for Vietnam at 5 a.m. I’m worried. We don’t want to go back, but the UNHCR said we have to return with those of us who have signed their names and agreed to go,” the group member said.
And another Montagnard named Rolan Ton, who also had refused to sign an agreement to return, said he had faced harassment little more than a year earlier.
“I was arrested in November and December of 2009. That’s why I don’t want to go back,” he said.
Evidence of repression
Some Montagnard refugees will resettle in the U.S. or Canada, while will be repatriated to Vietnam's Central Highlands. RFA
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said there is ample evidence to suggest the Montagnards are still facing persecution in Vietnam.
“The Montagnards are being ill-treated by the Vietnamese government. They were arrested and tortured in 2010. Family churches were harassed and the government monitored churches extremely closely,” he said.
Human Rights Watch says Vietnam imprisoned more than 300 Montagnards since 2001 for the “peaceful expression of their religious or political views, or for trying to seek asylum in Cambodia."
Robertson said Cambodia must provide safe asylum for Montagnards fleeing Vietnam even after it closes the United Nation's refugee center.
“I am talking about the future Montagnards seeking refugee status. The Vietnamese government is continuing to persecute the group, so they will keep coming.”
In a press statement, Human Rights Watch said it is “imperative for Cambodia not to deny Montagnards their basic right to seek safe asylum,” adding that the country is obligated to do so as a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
"Cambodia has a clear obligation to ensure that future Montagnard asylum seekers are permitted to enter a refugee screening process that is fair and based on international standards," said Robertson. "Closing the Montagnard refugee center doesn't change those obligations."
“Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s ordering the closure of the center shows he doesn’t understand what actions to take according to Cambodia’s commitment to the refugee convention.”
A history of persecution
Most of the Montagnards who fled to Cambodia and were recognized as refugees have resettled in the U.S., Sweden, Finland, and Canada.
In 2005, the UNHCR and the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments agreed that the UN refugee agency would oversee the protection and refugee screening process for the Montagnard asylum seekers.
However, in December 2009, the Cambodian government passed a sub-decree allowing its Interior Ministry to make the final decision about a refugee's status, a move rights groups say ignores the country’s obligations to the UN Refugee Convention.
Just days after the sub-decree was passed, Cambodian authorities deported to China 20 Uyghur asylum seekers at risk of torture and imprisonment for their alleged roles in earlier ethnic riots.
Human Rights Watch said the Cambodian government has a “dismal track record” of deporting refugees granted asylum status by the UNHCR, particularly those from neighboring countries such as China and Vietnam.
"The U.N. and concerned governments should press Cambodia to make sure the Montagnards don't suffer the same fate as the Uyghurs and others who have been unlawfully deported."
Reported by Tin Zakariya for RFA’s Khmer service and Khanh An and Quoc Viet for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated from Khmer by Poly Sam and from Vietnamese by Hanh Seide. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.