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Assistant High Commissioner cautiously optimistic over Montagnard returnee situation in Viet Nam's Central Highlands


Assistant High Commissioner cautiously optimistic over Montagnard returnee situation in Viet Nam's Central Highlands

After a two-day official visit to Viet Nam's Central Highlands to see for herself Montagnard returnees from Cambodia, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, said she was "cautiously optimistic about how their situation is evolving."
27 April 2006
Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller met Montagnard villagers during her two-day visit to Viet Nam's Central Highlands.

PLEIKU, Central Highlands, Viet Nam, April 27 (UNHCR) - Running barefoot across peppercorns spread to dry on the baked red earth courtyard of their two-storied wooden house, Siu Hue dashed into the fields to find her father and tell him of unexpected visitors. Minutes later she arrived on a motorbike with her father.

With her baby, the last of six children, slung in a locally-woven piece of material and wrapped to her body, his wife Siu E welcomed the visitors from UNHCR into their home. Her husband spread out extra mats on the spacious floor. Patiently, and in the absence of officials, Roan Juan explained why he had left his home in Viet Nam's Central Highlands and headed to Cambodia.

"I just wanted to go ... but I was very sad in the camps in Cambodia and I missed my family," he told UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller. "I came back to take care of my children because no one was taking care of them while I was away."

While he was in Cambodia, his wife looked after their pepper plants and cows on their 0.8-hectare plot of land as well as their five children. "I'm happy he came back," she said. Roan Juan said he had not suffered any ill-treatment on return and was bemused to hear there had been allegations he had been arrested.

"That's not true. I've never heard about that," he said, adding that the local authorities had given him assistance of rice to help him reintegrate.

His comments echoed those of the five other returnees Feller met on her two-day visit criss-crossing Gai Lai district as she assessed first-hand how they were faring, visiting most in their homes, while meeting two others together at a local administration building.

"I asked for, and met a cross-section of returnees - those who voluntarily decided to return, and those who were deported. I also asked to see some cases about which we had received some allegations of mistreatment," said Feller.

"Obviously, I couldn't see everybody, but UNHCR has had 10 monitoring visits to the Central Highlands since the voluntary repatriation of Montagnards started in March last year and we've visited over 64 percent of the returnees and our visits have found nothing that has raised a serious alarm. I also have a positive impression of how things are working on the ground within the framework of the agreement," she added.

Some 190 Montagnards have returned from Cambodia - including 96 voluntary returnees and 94 rejected asylum seekers - after an agreement was signed between Viet Nam, Cambodia and UNHCR in Hanoi in January 2005 to manage the situation of about 750 Montagnards in Cambodia at that time. Under the agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding, the Montagnards could either be resettled or return to Viet Nam. So far 605 have been resettled, mainly to the United States where many have strong ties, while a further 204 Montagnards remain in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

The Montagnards started arriving in Cambodia after April 2004 claiming religious reasons and land grievances as their reason for leaving their country.

However, the returnees visited by Feller all told her they left because they had been promised by outsiders to the village they would get money if they went to Cambodia and that they were looking for a better life.

"I was told I'd have money if I went to Cambodia. I heard that in the village," said one man who was deported back from Cambodia on 20 July 2005. "I went because other people said I'd have a better life in Cambodia. I didn't know what that would be, but just that it would be better," he added. He, like the other Montagnards Feller spoke to, all said they'd left without telling their wives or husbands.

Most of those who returned came back to their families, but Rohlan H'Ri, a deportee, said while she was in Cambodia for several months, her husband divorced her and when she returned, she had to live with her family.

Sitting on a wooden bench, inside her family home, Rohlan looks rather regretful of her decision to leave with her young son who is now in third grade at school.

"People asked me to go to Cambodia where I would get money. They said I would get money but wouldn't have to work," she said. Now Rohlan is working on her family pepper, coffee and cashew nut plot but is hoping to work again in the surrounding state rubber plantations where she worked previously and would be paid around US$120 a month.

Montagnard children play amongst the pepper plantations in Chu Se District in Viet Nam's Central Highlands.

After her series of visits, Feller met with the People's Committee Chairman of Gai Lai Province, Pham The Dung, who told her that the agreement had provided a useful framework to manage the situation of returning Montagnards. However, he added that if Montagnards wanted to leave and go to the United States they could do that without any problems and could get travel documents quickly.

On Friday, Feller is scheduled to meet senior officials in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi to discuss the agreement to deal with Montagnards who arrive in Cambodia.

By Jennifer Pagonis in Pleiku, Viet Nam