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Viet Nam: Visit to monitor condition of Montagnards returning from Cambodia

Briefing notes

Viet Nam: Visit to monitor condition of Montagnards returning from Cambodia

29 July 2005

UNHCR's regional representative based in Thailand is scheduled to visit Viet Nam's Central Highlands early next week to assess the condition of Montagnard returnees from Cambodia including those who returned voluntarily earlier in the year, and some rejected asylum seekers who were deported on 20 July. The representative will be accompanied by a national staff member who has already made five trips to the region to monitor the well-being of the voluntary returnees and found nothing to cause disquiet.

We are aware of concerns from some human rights groups and reports in the media surrounding the voluntary return of the Montagnards, and the circumstances of the deportation of 94 rejected Montagnard asylum seekers on 20 July from Phnom Penh. To set the record straight, the persons returned on 20 July all had their claims to refugee status properly rejected after a thorough process of review which included a right of appeal. From UNHCR's perspective they were not refugees. Indeed, on arrival at the Viet Nam border point, seven returnees admitted they were Cambodians and did not want to go to Viet Nam. They were returned by the Cambodian authorities to Phnom Penh. While distressing, return of rejected claimants is a normal procedure followed around the world and it is not a violation of international law. UNHCR did not take part in the return, as this is the responsibility of the Cambodian government, but five UNHCR staff members monitored the return carefully at Site 1 in Phnom Penh, intervening on several occasions to ensure no excess force was applied. The Cambodian authorities were receptive to our interventions and it is our firm impression that they managed the return with proper restraint. We did not observe anyone being beaten, kicked, or electric batons being used to shock people. Nor did we observe AK-47 rifles being present in the compound as reported. At one point our staff did notice some police were carrying non-lethal riot guns. On our request the authorities immediately withdrew police carrying weapons from the compound. Certainly, some deportees did physically resist being removed despite earlier counselling by UNHCR that they would have to return to Viet Nam and they should cooperate with the authorities. We have subsequently found out that some rejected cases had misleadingly been told by other sources that they would not be returned to Viet Nam and they would be protected and resettled to the United States, giving the deportees false hope.

In a separate development, UNHCR and the Cambodian government are scheduled to depart today on a joint mission to Ratanakiri province where a reported 34 Montagnards are said to be hiding in the jungle.

A total of 541 Montagnards are currently under UNHCR's care in Phnom Penh: of these 487 are recognised refugees of which 42 have refused to resettle, 17 persons with claims pending, 20 rejected cases and 17 humanitarian cases. We understand the US has an interest in the humanitarian and rejected cases.

As background, an agreement was signed between Viet Nam, Cambodia and UNHCR in Hanoi in January 2005 in an effort to find solutions for more than 700 Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia - essentially this was either resettlement to a third country or return to Viet Nam, as Cambodia has said it would not allow the Montagnards to remain in the country. Under the accord, Viet Nam has given guarantees that the returnees will not be punished, discriminated against or prosecuted. So far, 398 refugees were submitted for resettlement of which 149 have departed - 118 to the US, 8 to Canada and 23 to Finland. Forty-three people returned voluntarily to Viet Nam earlier this year.