UNHCR accompanies Montagnard refugees home to Viet Nam

News Stories, 23 September 2005

© © UNHCR/Vu Anh Son
A Montagnard returnee, reunited with his wife and children, welcomes a UNHCR official in their home in Viet Nam's Central Highlands.

PHNOM PENH, September 23 (UNHCR) An unprecedented monitoring visit by the UN refugee agency to Viet Nam's Central Highlands in the company of a group of returning Montagnards found all the returnees appeared glad to be back home and reunited with their families, UNHCR officials said.

On 9 September, the group of six Montagnards began their journey home after deciding they would rather return voluntarily to Viet Nam than be resettled to a third country. They were the last of a larger group who had initially been refusing both voluntary return to Viet Nam and resettlement to a third country.

The return of this Montagnard group was unique in that UNHCR representatives, for the first time, accompanied them throughout the entire three-day journey from Phnom Penh to their homes and families in the La Grai, Druc Co and A Yun Pa districts. Previous groups of returnees were accompanied only by Vietnamese authorities from the Viet Nam border to Plekiu city.

The Viet Nam government's willingness to let UNHCR accompany the returnees and to allow increasingly regular monitoring visits are seen by the agency as evidence of their commitment to successfully reintegrate the Montagnard returnees.

The refugees were accompanied by UNHCR staff and Cambodian authorities from Phnom Penh to the Moc Bai/Bavet border checkpoint of Tay Nanh Province, where they were received by UNHCR's Hanoi representative, Vu Anh Son, and Vietnamese officials. Vu Anh Son and his UNHCR counterpart in Cambodia then accompanied the refugees on a 10-hour journey to Pleiku, where they spent the night before continuing on home the following morning.

When Montagnards from Viet Nam's central highlands started crossing the border into Cambodia last year, it became clear to UNHCR that some had been misled into thinking that the UN refugee agency could help them solve land grievances. When UNHCR made it clear through counselling sessions that its mandate is refugee protection and that it could not assist with their land grievances, many Montagnards decided to return home.

None of the refugees in the latest group to return had been in contact with their families during their time in Cambodia few have phones in their homes and so had not been able to inform them they were coming back.

"I miss my family," was the explanation given by one refugee when asked why he was choosing to return to the Central Highlands.

UNHCR field officer Eldon Hager said news of UNHCR's increasingly regular monitoring visits also gave the refugees confidence "that their safety would be assured upon return."

All six of the returnees are farmers and live on the edge of the district town, between the business centre and large state farms. UNHCR's Phnom Penh and Hanoi Representatives went to each of the six men's homes upon return.

"Their families were extremely happy with their return and grateful to UNHCR for assistance," said Thamrongsak Meechubot, UNHCR Representative from Phnom Penh. "We did not observe any fear or insecurity among the six refugees."

One of the returnee men saw his 4-month-old baby for the first time, he said.

"Development works such as road upgrading and bridge construction are highly apparent in the three districts. My impression is that they [Montagnards] have been alienated by the rapid change of development and the new market economy," Meechubot added. "There is little forest or free land for small farmers with extended families to claim and obtain. A small plot of land would not be sufficient for all of their children, so they would be obliged to change their way of living."

He noted that development affects ethnic minorities and indigenous groups around the world and said Vietnamese officials have expressed a desire to address such problems. UNHCR is discussing the possibility of starting some micro-projects in the Central Highlands.

In addition to their six fellow travellers, Meechubot and Vu Anh Son also visited another seven earlier returnees. They included six who were rejected asylum seekers and who had been deported on July 20. Vu Anh Son said the returnees reported "no problems" since returning home, and had received assistance from local authorities for their reintegration.

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 72 Montagnards have voluntarily returned to Viet Nam. Another 286 Montagnards have been resettled to third countries mainly to the United States, but also to Finland and Canada. Fifty-seven more are scheduled to depart for the United States next week. There are currently 417 Montagnards still under UNHCR's care in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

By Deborah Backus