PHNOM PENH (Christian Examiner) – Nearly 200 ethnic minority – or Montagnard – Christians from the Central Highlands of Vietnam will be forcibly repatriated to Vietnam if they do not return home on their own within three months, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees said in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sept. 14.
The Montagnards crossed into Cambodia earlier this year, seeking asylum from religious persecution in Vietnam. Thirteen have been given refugee status, but the remainder apparently do not have sufficient evidence of mistreatment by the Vietnamese authorities to warrant the designation.
According to Vivian Tan, a regional spokesperson for UNHCR, Vietnamese officials had pledged not to punish the Montagnards once they returned and were "ready to receive all Montagnard asylum seekers back."
Tan also said the Vietnamese government had provided assurances that UNHCR will be able to visit them after their return home.
But Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said Vietnamese police and officials in the provinces adjacent to Cambodia's Ratanakiri Province – where the Montagnards came from – could not be trusted.
"Hanoi issued the same sorts of false promises to entice back Montagnards who fled to Cambodia to escape violent crackdowns in the central highlands in 2001 and 2004, and those who returned faced interrogations, intimidation, and in some cases torture – just as some who were forced back by the Cambodian government earlier this year," Robertson said.
"The Montagnards have learned their lessons about bogus Vietnamese pledges – now UNHCR also needs to recognize that Vietnam is not trustworthy in this regard, and stand clear of any involvement in Montagnard returns," Robertson continued.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for Cambodia's Interior Ministry, said Friday that it had imposed a three-month deadline for the UNHCR to evaluate their asylum claims in conjunction with the government. Until then, Sopheak said, the refugees would be classified as "economic migrants."
"We do not recognize that they are Montagnard [refugees] because they have illegally infiltrated into Cambodia and we have proposed the UNHCR repatriate those Montagnards back to their home towns," Sopheak said.
According to New American Media in Asia, analysts believe Cambodia wants to avoid antagonizing Vietnam by granting refugee status to many of the Montagnards – which the government still holds responsible for aiding United States military forces during the Vietnam War.
Sopheak dismissed a recent Human Rights Watch report that stated the highlanders faced systematic religious and political persecution in Vietnam, saying Vietnam had "an open door."