Monitoring visits to Montagnards show returnees benefit from assistance

Increasingly regular visits by the UN refugee agency to Montagnards who have returned to Viet Nam's central highlands from Cambodia show returnees are receiving active assistance to reintegrate back home and are well treated.

Montagnard returnees receive medical attention in Viet Nam's Moc Bai border town before continuing to their villages in the central highlands' Chu Se and Duc Co districts.   © UNHCR/D.Backus

BANGKOK, September 5 (UNHCR) - Increasingly regular visits by the UN refugee agency to Montagnards who have returned to Viet Nam's central highlands from Cambodia show returnees are receiving active assistance to reintegrate back home and are well treated.

"The sheer scale of distances we have to travel to visit returnees in their homes, often in very inaccessible and isolated locations, makes monitoring a very time-intensive operation," said UNHCR's Bangkok-based regional representative, Hasim Utkan, after a second international monitoring visit late August. "But, it's very reassuring to see the returnees are treated as victims, not culprits, by the local authorities. They almost all have land, and are getting positive help to restart their lives."

On Friday, September 3, a further 23 Montagnards returned to Viet Nam from Cambodia - 20 of the group were refugees returning voluntarily, while a family of three were rejected asylum seekers. All returnees were greeted warmly by Vietnamese officials at the border, provided with lunch, medical checks if necessary, and reassurance that they would be well treated back in their home villages.

When groups of Montagnards from Viet Nam's central highlands started crossing the border into Cambodia last year, the UN refugee agency was concerned that some Montagnards had been misled into thinking that UNHCR would return with them to Viet Nam and help them solve land grievances.

"From what I understand after talking to the returnees, many of these people believed that they would get more land if they were to reach UNHCR in Cambodia. This is very sad. There is something ethically wrong in starting these kind of unfounded rumours which place people at risk," said Utkan.

He said he was also told by some Montagnards that they went to Cambodia because they thought they would have a better life. "One returnee told us that when he realized that he had been misled, he immediately asked UNHCR to facilitate his return," he added.

"During my visit, I became more aware of the human and social cost that Montagnards had to bear as a result of their journey to Cambodia," said the UNHCR representative. "The majority of them are single and leave their families behind for extended periods. This results in a serious disruption of family lives and economic losses."

In one case, a family who had returned from Cambodia said a relative they had left behind had sold their land in their absence for a very small amount of money.

The refugee agency has routinely conducted monitoring visits across the vast distances in the central highlands, visiting both voluntary returnees and deportees. This year, before the Friday returns, 43 refugees have returned voluntarily and a further 94 rejected asylum seekers were deported. After the second international monitoring visit, 80 percent of the voluntary returnees had been visited, together with 40 percent of the deportees.

"All the returnees acknowledged they had received some assistance, such as rice, kerosene, salt and seeds, which had helped them. And, we also noticed the positive interaction between the returnees and the local authorities. There were no signs of fear and returnees were not shy in asking for more assistance," Utkan added.

He said almost all the returnees have some land, ranging from 1 to 3 hectares with their homes generally located in the middle or adjacent to their fields.

"Gia Lai is a poor province, but returnees do not appear to be worse off than the local population. All the villages have electricity and returnees usually own a motorbike. Almost all have a TV set," Utkan observed.

UNHCR is discussing the possibility of starting some micro-projects in the central highlands returnee areas to assist the general population as well as returnees.

Since an agreement was signed between Cambodia, Viet Nam and UNHCR in Hanoi in January to seek solutions for more than 500 Montagnards in Cambodia, a total of 160 Montagnards have returned to Viet Nam - including 94 rejected asylum seekers who were deported in July. Some 286 Montagnards have been resettled to third countries - mainly to the United States, but also to Finland and Canada. There are currently 423 Montagnards under UNHCR's care in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

By Jennifer Pagonis