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International Concern Grows as Police Search for Montagnards

Ethnic Montagnards look from behind the gates of their temporary UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and IOM (International Organization for Migration) administered quarters in Phnom Penh, file photo.

International concern over the fate of a group of Vietnamese Montagnards continues to grow, even as police say they are searching for the potential asylum seekers from Vietnam.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed “deep concern” Tuesday over reports Cambodian authorities are looking for the group of Montagnards. The agency said in a statement from Geneva it feared police are searching for at least 13 potential asylum seekers “with a view to deporting them to Vietnam.”

“Today, we have from local sources that there was a threat of the police arresting and deporting them,” Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional spokeswoman said on Tuesday. “I think there are two important things at this point. First of all, we continue to advocate with the government that this group cannot be sent back to a place where their life could be in danger. And [secondly] they must also have access to asylum if they are seeking for asylum. These are the two main things that we’ve been urging the government to respect.”

The Cambodian government has a history of deporting minorities from Vietnam who flee across the border seeking refuge. Montagnards there claim political and religious oppression in Vietnam, particularly for their aid of US forces during the war in the 1960s and 1970s.

Cambodian police officials say they are searching for the group, which is reportedly in hiding in remote Ratanakkiri province, in the northeast of the country, but they have denied claims they intend to immediately return them to Vietnam.

Nevertheless, Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, said efforts by police to “detain and forcibly return” the asylum seekers “need to stop immediately.”

“Under no circumstances should Cambodia send these persons back to Vietnam, since to do so would fundamentally violate Phnom Penh’s commitments under the UN refugee convention,” he said. “Police sweeps to locate these persons’ jungle hiding spots should be halted right now, and safe passage provided to the 13 asylum seekers to go where they want to go.”

Vietnam has continued to persecute Montagnards with arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture and long prison terms on false charges, he said. “Sending back the Montagnards now would show just how little refugee rights and protection mean in Cambodia.”

The search for the asylum seekers comes amid concerns for another set of refugees on the island nature of Nauru, which Cambodia has agreed to accept in a deal with Australia.

Cambodia’s handling of the current Montagnard situation “is a clear test case that will demonstrate whether Cambodian pledges to uphold the Refugees Convention are worth the paper that they are written on in the MOU with Australia,” Robertson said. “What needs to happen is these 13 persons should be allowed to travel to Phnom Penh unhindered so that they can tell their accounts of religious and political persecution to officials tasked with assessing refugee claims.”