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UNHCR expresses concern over collapse of tripartite agreement

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UNHCR expresses concern over collapse of tripartite agreement

22 March 2002

GENEVA, 22 March - UNHCR said today that Viet Nam and Cambodia had violated the terms of a tripartite agreement on the voluntary return of "Montagnard" refugees and declared it could no longer be associated with repatriation under the agreement.

The decision follows a serious incident on March 21 in which a group of more than 400 Vietnamese arrived in 12 buses, entered a refugee camp at Mondulkiri and threatened and manhandled refugees and UNHCR staff trying to protect them.

In a letter to the foreign ministers of both governments, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers expressed "grave concern" over the incident.

"Mindful that UNHCR cannot be part of a process that no longer conforms with its mandate or principles governing voluntary repatriation, I regret to inform you that UNHCR is left with no choice but to disassociate itself from the repatriation agreement," Lubbers said.

"I do not believe that the overall situation is conducive for repatriation in line with international standards and all returns should therefore be suspended."

In his letter, Lubbers said, "Montagnard refugees were subjected to an unprecedented and unacceptable level of coercion to repatriate and UNHCR staff were manhandled and their lives threatened for trying to protect the refugees."

In one incident, a child was taken from its parents and put onto one of the waiting buses. UNHCR staff were later able to get the child off the bus and back to its frightened parents.

UNHCR staff who witnessed the events said Cambodian officials, who are normally present at the site, were absent or did not respond to the situation.

After a standoff lasting several hours, the visitors left with six refugees who opted to return with them.

"The incident makes us doubt Viet Nam's and Cambodia's will to resolve the Montagnard refugee issue according to the letter and spirit of the tripartite agreement," said Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the Geneva-based director of UNHCR's Asia Bureau.

Lubbers also called on the government of Cambodia to ensure the protection and safety of the Montagnard refugees in accordance with its international obligations as spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. More than 900 Montagnards are sheltered in two border camps of Cambodia since fleeing Viet Nam beginning a year ago.

Thursday's events followed an incident on March 16 when a group of 35 Montagnard refugees apparently trying to flee Viet Nam were forced back by Cambodian officials.

Last January, UNHCR reached the tripartite agreement with Viet Nam and Cambodia on the Montagnards' return. Under the agreement, UNHCR was to be given full access to Viet Nam's Central Highlands before, during and after the repatriation. However, the agreement was thrown in question earlier this month when Vietnamese authorities barred UNHCR from visiting certain areas.