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Vietnamese in Cambodia torn between going on exile and returning home

Vietnamese in Cambodia torn between going on exile and returning home

A new group of Vietnamese asylum seekers has arrived in Phnom Penh while a handful of recent arrivals say they wish to return home in Viet Nam's Central Highlands. Some of Vietnamese, called Montagnards, say they are seeking UNHCR's assistance in retrieving their property but the refugee agency says it does not have the authority to intervene in land disputes in Viet Nam.
11 November 2004
Montagnard asylum seekers pray before taking their meal in a UNHCR facility at Banlung in Ratanakiri province.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, Nov. 11 (UNHCR) - Montagnards from Viet Nam's Central Highlands continue to arrive in Phnom Penh, while in Banlung in Ratanakiri province a handful of recently arrived Montagnard asylum seekers told UNHCR they wish to return home.

A group of 22 new arrivals came to the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh on Thursday morning. All appeared to be in good health after the two-day journey to Cambodia's capital.

"I came because the authorities were treating me badly and I can't practice my religion," said one Montagnard asylum seeker who did not want to be named.

The new arrivals included eight children. Some of the group said they were joining family members who had already fled to Cambodia and were now under UNHCR protection in Phnom Penh.

"It's a rather mixed picture. Many Montagnards are coming to Cambodia claiming they have heard on the radio that UNHCR can help them with resolving long-standing land disputes but we can't. We are a refugee agency and this is not part of our mandate. A small number of asylum seekers in Banlung, once they were fully informed that we could not help on land issues have decided to return home," said UNHCR's representative in Cambodia Thamrongsak Meechubot.

Over the last four months UNHCR has made six joint missions with the Cambodian authorities to the provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri in the north-east of the country after hearing of Montagnards hiding in the jungle and needing assistance.

A total of 441 asylum seekers were brought to Phnom Penh for refugee status determination, and there is currently a group of 48 Montagnards in Banlung. With the new arrivals today the total number of Montagnards under UNHCR's protection is 569, including previous arrivals in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian government has said local integration is not an option for the asylum seekers and they should be resettled to a third country in a short time-frame. However, over 75 per cent of the 192 people submitted for resettlement to the United States said they did not want to be resettled to a third country and they also did not want to return to Viet Nam, leaving UNHCR no clear solution for the refugees.

"I don't want to go to the U.S. I came to Cambodia and I want a UN solution for the problem in Viet Nam. We are under a lot of pressure over religion and I want my confiscated land back," said one male refugee, who said he had heard radio reports that the UN could help Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

"I don't know about the future, but I want to stay here waiting for a solution," he added.

In UNHCR's experience, it is highly unusual for refugees to refuse resettlement offers and there are concerns that some refugees may be coming under pressure not to accept resettlement for reasons that are not yet clear.

However, a minority of refugees have opted for resettlement.

"I am very happy because when I go to the US it will be good for my children. It's not good for us to stay in Cambodia, so I've changed my mind and I want to go," said one male refugee with several children.

Over the last two days the Cambodian authorities, in the presence of UNHCR, have been verifying the Montagnards position on resettlement.

UNHCR is concerned that some Montagnard asylum seekers may be exposing themselves to unnecessary risk by crossing into Cambodia under the mistaken impression UNHCR can help them resolve their land disputes.

By Jennifer Pagonis in Phnom Penh, Cambodia