Cambodia Sends Last Montagnard Refugees Back to Vietnam

Cambodian authorities have forced back to Vietnam the last 11 of 60 Montagnard refugees who fled to Cambodia’s dense, malaria-ridden forest in July, after local fishermen were pressured into revealing their hiding place, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

All 11 Montagnards, including one woman, were handed over to Vietnamese authorities in mid-November, according to sources who asked not to be named. All 60 Montagnards belong to the Jarai (in Vietnamese, Gia Rai) ethnic group and had fled to Cambodia from Vietnam’s Gia Lai-Kontum Province on July 20.

Rattanakiri Province police confirmed the refugees’ return but declined to say when it had occurred. Residents of O Lvea village said border police had rounded up the last remaining members of the group from dense forest in the Koh Nhek district between Rattanakiri and Mondolkiri provinces. No information was available on the fate of the Montagnards after their return to Vietnam.

Local fishermen told RFA’s Khmer service that border guards had tightened security considerably since October, creating multiple checkpoints and making it impossible for the fishermen to continue smuggling food to the Montagnards.

The Montagnards had been living mainly on wild tubers and bamboo shoots, and all 60 contracted malaria. Out of an original group, 34 returned home voluntarily, seven surrendered to Cambodian authorities, and eight were aided by local villagers in seeking help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The term Montagnard denotes a variety of indigenous minorities in Vietnam, where human rights organizations say they are subject to heavy-handed repression.

In an interview, Mondolkiri’s deputy police commissioner, Leng Tum, said Cambodia’s central Interior Ministry was responsible for apprehending and repatriating Vietnamese refugees. “In the past, those who were caught crossing the border were sent back to Vietnam. The border guards protect the border, which is very far from here—about 90-100 kms from the provincial town,” Leng Tum said.

But Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak denied the presence of any Vietnamese refugees in Cambodia. “I think there have been no such incidents, because in the last year we have worked to conclude this problem. We repatriated more than 1,000 refugees and the government closed down the refugee-holding camp afterward,” Khieu Sopheak said in an interview.

Sam Sarin, of the human rights group Adhoc in Mondolkiri, said Cambodian authorities have in fact arrested and repatriated 30 to 40 Vietnamese refugees since the camps were closed in 2001. “Since the dissolution of the refugee camps, the authorities have never been concerned about the problem of the refugees, particularly the ethnic Jarai,” Sam Sarin said. “They have not allowed human rights activists to meet or question the refugees.”

“All along, when it comes to the problem of the Montagnards, the authorities have never allowed human rights organizations to get involved. They have never permitted us to meet or question the refugees,” he said. “They’ve claimed that it is a problem between Cambodia and Vietnam… Since the dismantling of the refugee camps, they’ve sent back to Vietnam any refugees they could lay their hands on.”

UNHCR officials couldn’t be reached to comment, but a source close to UNHCR indicated that organization has accepted petitions for refugee status from more than 30 Vietnamese refugees in Cambodia this year. Some have been granted asylum in the United States.

In August, one Cambodian military official responsible for monitoring the movements of Vietnamese refugees in O Lvea told RFA he had sent four of the Montagnards back to Vietnam in exchange for 100 kilos of rice and 15 liters of gasoline.

In a statement Dec. 2, Human Rights Watch urged international donors to step up pressure on Vietnam to improve its “dramatically worsening human rights record”—including “persecution, unlawful arrest, torture, and other mistreatment of Montagnards who have voluntarily or forcibly been returned from Cambodia to Vietnam.”

Several thousand Montagnards staged protests in February 2001 to call for independence, return of ancestral land, and religious freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive show of force, deploying thousands of police and soldiers and arresting hundreds of indigenous people in the Central Highlands.

More than 1,000 highlanders fled to Cambodia, where they were sheltered in two UNHCR refugee camps. In March 2002, Cambodia authorized the processing for resettlement in the United States of more than 900 Montagnard asylum-seekers who had fled to Cambodia over the preceding year.

While Vietnam’s Central Highlands are now largely closed to foreigners, journalists, and human rights groups, the U.S. State Department’s most recent report on human rights around the world cited “numerous credible reports” of harassment and repression of Montagnards.