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Tripartite Agreement on Montagnards under threat

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Tripartite Agreement on Montagnards under threat

23 February 2002

GENEVA - UNHCR on Saturday said a tripartite agreement with Viet Nam and Cambodia on the voluntary return of Vietnamese Montagnards was being seriously eroded by the actions of the two governments. The refugee agency is seeking urgent clarification from Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities.

In particular, an apparent agreement between the governments of Cambodia and Viet Nam, announced during the week, that all the Montagnards should return by 30 April, would totally undermine the idea of voluntariness.

Over the past week, three specific incidents have aroused UNHCR's concern that the tripartite agreement - reached between the two governments and UNHCR on Jan. 21 - is no longer being adhered to by Cambodia and Viet Nam.

A UNHCR monitoring team, which under the tripartite agreement is assured access to Viet Nam's Central Highlands before, during and after any Montagnard repatriation, was refused permission to visit villages of potential returnees on Thursday. UNHCR withdrew the team after it had checked on 15 Montagnards it had escorted home from Cambodia on Tuesday.

A Vietnamese government delegation, accompanied by senior Cambodian officials, was taken to Mondulkiri refugee site in Cambodia on Friday and addressed the Montagnards there. In general, UNHCR opposes visits to refugee camps by officials from the countries they have fled. In Friday's visit, a policeman struck a number of Montagnards with an electric baton during a heated exchange with the visiting officials, prompting intervention by UNHCR staff in the camp.

During the course of the Mondulkiri visit, the refugees were informed of the April 30 deadline apparently set by the two governments for their return to Viet Nam.

The introduction of a deadline clearly undermines the voluntary nature of return. UNHCR considers the Tripartite Agreement to be sound, providing it is scrupulously implemented exactly as agreed on January 21.

UNHCR is urgently seeking clarification at the highest levels from both governments.

About 1,000 Montagnards fled their Central Highlands homes about a year ago following unrest over land disputes and alleged religious persecution.