Nine Montagnards go home in first UNHCR repatriation to Viet Nam
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, March 11 (UNHCR) - Nine Montagnards, anxious to be reunited with their families but fearful of the future, returned to Viet Nam today in the first repatriation organised by the UN refugee agency under an agreement aimed at finding solutions for some 750 Vietnamese who fled into Cambodia over the past year.
The eight men and a 13-year-old boy set out in the morning from the refugee centre in the Cambodian capital in a convoy of five vehicles for the three-hour trip to Bavet-Moc Bai border crossing, where they were met by Vietnamese authorities. They will be taken to Ho Chi Minh City before proceeding to their home province of Gia Lai in the central highlands.
"I want to thank the UN for the food and shelter you provided, but now I need to return," said one returnee. "I don't know what will happen to me but I am willing to find out because I miss my wife and children so much."
The first group of returnees, accompanied to the border by UNHCR staff, is among 43 Montagnards - an ethnic minority group from Viet Nam's central highlands - who have decided to return home under the January agreement signed in Hanoi by UNHCR, Cambodia and Viet Nam. The agreement sets out the basis for either resettlement or repatriation of 750 Vietnamese who had fled the central highlands over alleged land disputes and religious harassment. It specifies that returnees will not face prosecution or discrimination.
UNHCR is making arrangements for the return of 14 more Vietnamese next Thursday and a third batch of 20 next month. Another 297 persons have opted for resettlement to a third country.
Emotions were mixed among the returnees. "I came to find help to get my land back, not to live in another country," said one, reflecting a general sentiment. "I am disappointed the UN cannot get my land back and I am nervous, but I'm happy to go home because I'm going to see my family again."
In November 2004, UNHCR said it was concerned that a growing number of Montagnards had crossed into Cambodia under the mistaken impression that the agency could help them get back their confiscated lands. Counselling sessions have been provided to make it clear UNHCR could not help them with their land grievances, prompting some asylum seekers to return to Viet Nam.
UNHCR Representative in Cambodia Tham Meechubot said, "I am very pleased that these men are able to meet their families again. It is a positive move. Now they understand that UNHCR cannot help with their land problems."
Previously, an overwhelming majority of recognized Montagnard refugees had rejected resettlement from Cambodia. Of some 150 cases submitted for resettlement in the United States, for example, nearly three-quarters decided against going. After the signing of the agreement, nearly half of the Montagnard population in Cambodia has now requested resettlement to a third country. UNHCR is facilitating resettlement processing to various countries, including Canada, the United States and Finland. Cambodia has consistently said that local integration is not an option for the Montagnards.
By Cathy Shin in Phnom Penh, Cambodia