Asylum Seekers Returned to Vietnam

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- Cambodia has expelled dozens of asylum seekers from Vietnam despite assuring the United Nations it would not forcibly send them home, a human rights group said in a statement Sunday.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch denounced the expulsions of at least 89 hill tribespeople and called for immediate protection of other refugees.

" At a minimum, the deportations show that policies publicly announced in Phnom Penh are not being implemented in the provinces, " the statement said.

Hundreds of asylum seeker crossed into neighboring Cambodia in February after Vietnamese security forces crushed protests by thousands of hill tribespeople in Vietnam' s Central Highlands.

The protests were reportedly triggered by land grievances, poverty, and restrictions on the practice of the Protestant religion, followed by many of the minority groups. Such anti-government protests are extremely rare, and have shaken Vietnamese authorities.

The Communist government harbors a deep distrust of the hill tribe minorities, some of whom fought alongside American forces during the Vietnam War.

At least 38 of the asylum seekers were granted refugee status by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and accepted by the United States, where they were resettled in April.

The United Nations did not send staff to the border provinces for weeks. But when it did earlier this month, staff found more refugees, many of whom hid from Cambodian authorities for fear of being deported.

Human Rights Watch said 70 of the confirmed expulsions came in the past 10 days, even after the United Nations received assurances from senior Cambodian officials that the U.N. would be allowed to interview all asylum seekers before their fates were determined.

Provincial authorities would neither confirm nor deny the deportations.

Human Rights Watch suggested that Cambodia may be caving in to pressure from its longtime ally, Vietnam, which for weeks has claimed that the hill tribespeople crossed the border illegally and demanded their return.

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