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Cambodia: UNHCR concern on Montagnard crossings

Briefing notes

Cambodia: UNHCR concern on Montagnard crossings

5 November 2004

UNHCR is concerned that a growing number of Montagnards from Viet Nam's Central Highlands have crossed into Cambodia under the mistaken impression we could help them get their confiscated lands back.

Over the last four months, UNHCR in a joint operation with Cambodian authorities has conducted five missions to the border states of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri in response to reports that groups of Montagnard asylum seekers were hiding in the jungle. A total of 441 Montagnards presented themselves to UNHCR, and after basic registration were transported to Phnom Penh for refugee status determination. The Cambodian government has requested the refugees be resettled in a third country within a short timeframe because local integration was not an option.

However, it became apparent during status determination interviews that many of the asylum seekers had crossed the border following rumours and alleged radio reports that the "U.N." could help them recover confiscated lands, and not all were fleeing persecution. Once it was made clear UNHCR could not assist them with their land grievances, some asylum seekers said they wanted to return to Viet Nam. Others who had already been recognised as refugees also overwhelmingly rejected resettlement. Of some 150 cases submitted for U.S. resettlement, for example, nearly three-quarters decided against going.

After counselling, some refugees said they were being pressured, but others said their decision not to accept resettlement was a free choice. Many expressed concerns about their families left behind in Viet Nam and the difficulties they could face in a new country. They repeatedly requested assistance with resolving their land confiscation problems, which they say occurred some years earlier. Several asylum seekers have already left the UNHCR site in Phnom Penh to make their own way back to Viet Nam.

This situation has placed UNHCR in a quandary as our mandate is to provide international protection for refugees, not to resolve land disputes. The Cambodian government wishes for a speedy resettlement. We are involved in a constructive dialogue with the Vietnamese authorities to find an acceptable humanitarian solution for the repatriation of those asylum seekers who wish to return home. But we nevertheless remain concerned that Montagnards, under the illusion that we can help with their land problems, may have put themselves at unnecessary risk and exposed themselves to increased vulnerability by crossing into Cambodia.

A new group of 54 Montagnards currently in Banlung, Ratanakiri Province, will receive thorough counselling with UNHCR and be clearly told that we cannot help with land issues, before being registered as asylum seekers. There are currently a total of 553 Montagnards under UNHCR protection. So far in 2004, 74 cases have been resettled - 67 to the United States and seven to Sweden.