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Montagnards not punished for leaving Viet Nam, UNHCR mission finds

Montagnards not punished for leaving Viet Nam, UNHCR mission finds

A team of UNHCR officials monitoring the treatment of minority Montagnard hill tribe people in Viet Nam heard from the returnees that they have not suffered any repercussions after leaving the country illegally for what they hoped would be an easy life in the distant United States.
19 September 2006
Montagnard farmer Kpuih Hlat returned home after leaving for Cambodia in a disappointing quest to practise his Dega Protestant religion.

IAKLA COMMUNE, Viet Nam, September 19 (UNHCR) - In the villages of this remote area, where mountain tribes raise coffee, pepper and cassava, and US$20-a-month work in a rubber plantation passes for a good job, tales circulate of a distant land where life is easy and money practically falls from the trees.

A prosperous new life in America beckons, so the stories go, if the minority Montagnards just walk across the border to Cambodia, a trek of one to five days. Although they lack many amenities, most of the one-room wooden homes here have a television showing movies that fuel dreams of this fabled paradise.

Romah Nhol, 21, and his 16-year-old wife, Rahlon Miet, both uneducated and married years before the legal age in Viet Nam, heard the enticing tales. In January 2005, a group of other villagers decided to go to Cambodia en route to the United States. The couple instantly joined the expedition, despite the fact that Rahlon was pregnant.

"People said we could go to America," Romah said simply, back in his home in Viet Nam's Central Highlands with his wife and now 15-month-old baby, who was born in Cambodia. "I see America on TV, but I don't know exactly what it is." However, disappointment waited in Cambodia: "I thought it was very simple to go to America, but it's not very simple," Romah said. "We came back because we were missing our home."

Romah and Rahlon are two of nearly 200 Montagnard hill tribe people whose well-being is being monitored by UNHCR after being deported from Cambodia or helped home by the UN refugee agency last year.

More than 500 Montagnards who fled a 2001 crackdown on protests calling for religious freedom were resettled to the United States. However, the claim to refugee status of more recent arrivals was weak, and many have returned home from Cambodia with UNHCR's help.

Giuseppe de Vincentis, deputy head of UNHCR's regional office in Bangkok, and Vu Anh Son, head of the agency's Viet Nam operations, last week visited the Central Highlands to ascertain that the Montagnards have not been punished for leaving the country illegally. Most of the 33 returnees the team met were interviewed in private.

The returnees told remarkably similar stories. In this collective society, most said they simply followed others to Cambodia, and no one seemed to know who had organised the departure of groups as large as 50 people, mostly men. None told their families they were leaving.

Ksor Dim, aged 20, said the lure of America caused her to leave her husband on the spur of the moment and head for Cambodia with her infant son. "It was dangerous," she says now. "I was very scared. I had no plan at all." Added one 29-year-old man: "I followed people leaving and I followed people coming back."

Most of the minority hill tribe people in these remote villages of the Central Highlands - dubbed Montagnards by the French colonialists - identify themselves as "Dega Protestants." This indigenous strand of Christianity, reportedly mixing religious practice with political activism and ethnic minority separatism, is not sanctioned by the authorities.

"I wanted to go to Cambodia for my religion," said Kpuih Hlat, 40, the father of five children. In Cambodia, he said, "I tried to practise my religion, but I could not find the real thing, so I decided to return."

The returnees all told the UNHCR monitoring team that their families were happy to receive them, and that they have easily resumed their old lives.

"The condition of the returnees is the same as the rest of the population in the villages," said UNHCR's Vu Anh Son. Although the living standard of the Montagnards is generally low, the returnees "are not necessarily worse off than other people in this area, and many said they have benefited from help from the local authorities - allocations of rice and kerosene - to help them re-establish their lives back home," he added.

Local Vietnamese officials are also trying to head off new departures. But the most powerful testimony comes from the returnees themselves. "Nobody leaves from this commune any more since people coming back discouraged them from leaving," said Rmah Kluch, chairman of the la Pnon Commune of Duc Co District.

After last week's mission, UNHCR has now monitored 100 percent of returnees in Kon Tum province and nearly 70 percent in Gai Lai province, far above the numbers that are usually monitored by the refugee agency.

UNHCR's Giuseppe de Vincentis chats with a Montagnard returnee in Viet Nam's Central Highlands.

A major breakthrough of last week's monitoring mission was a visit to a returnee who was arrested for people-smuggling and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. He had no complaints about his treatment, but was eager to finish his sentence and get back home.

"The fact that we could visit a prisoner was a clear signal of cooperation from the Vietnamese authorities," said de Vincentis. "Symbolically and substantially, this was quite a major development."

By Kitty McKinsey in Iakla Commune, Viet Nam