Christian Tribesmen Forcibly Repatriated to Vietnam

Montagnards Reported Losing Faith in U.N. Officials

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, MARCH 5, 2002 ( Cambodian authorities have forcibly repatriated 63 predominantly Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who were seeking asylum in Cambodia, Compass Direct reported.

Sixty-one refugees from a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees camp, who reportedly had «volunteered» to return, were also repatriated over the weekend. Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities refused to allow the UNHCR any participating role, in violation of a Jan. 21 agreement, the Christian news service said.

Observers fear that the remaining 1,000 Montagnard refugees in two camps will also be forced to return. Vietnam´s tribal peoples are collectively known as Montagnards.

A year ago, Vietnam´s tribal minorities shocked authorities when thousands marched on government buildings in the central highland cities to protest a lack of religious freedom and the illegal loss of much of their traditional lands.

Vietnamese authorities responded with a massive military and security crackdown. Many tribals fled their homes for the forest, and more than 1,600 — almost all Christians — crossed the border into Cambodia´s Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri provinces.

Vietnam pressured Cambodia to return the refugees. Hundreds were turned over to Vietnamese authorities by Cambodian police for a bounty.

Following an international outcry against these human rights abuses, the UNHCR set up a camp in each of the two provinces and provided at least some protection. Refugees continued to trickle in.

On Jan. 21, the UNHCR signed an agreement with Vietnam and Cambodia to repatriate the refugees immediately. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch objected to the lack of guarantees for the refugees´ security.

Critics of the agreement said the UNHCR did not take seriously the evidence presented about religious human rights abuses against Vietnam´s minorities and had failed to live up to its protection mandate. Some observers close to the situation even accused the UNHCR of anti-Christian bias.

After being allowed a brief visit to the central highlands in early February, the UNHCR assured those who raised questions that Vietnam had promised no reprisals against returnees for illegal departure.

In the meantime, the UNHCR, against its normal practice, allowed Vietnamese authorities to bring refugees´ relatives into the camps to try to persuade their family members to return voluntarily. Once out of earshot of the authorities, some of the visitors reportedly warned their relatives not to return under any circumstances.

Nevertheless, the UNHCR announced 109 «volunteers» would return Feb. 19. In fact, 15 were repatriated. Vietnamese authorities, apparently concerned about international criticism, allowed some reporters to visit the repatriates. In spite of attempts by the Vietnamese to control meetings, the repatriates managed to express significant fears to the reporters, according to Compass Direct.

On Feb. 22, UNHCR staff members were prevented by Cambodian authorities from going where they needed to go in order to prepare for more repatriations. On the same day, Vietnamese authorities, who were allowed into the Mondolkiri camp by the UNHCR, threatened the refugees and announced an April 30 deadline for their «voluntary» repatriation. When some refugees objected, Cambodian police with electric truncheons waded in to subdue them in full view of UNHCR officials, sources said.

Finally on Feb. 24, the UNHCR announced that the actions by the Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities «seriously eroded» the repatriation agreement and asked these countries for «clarification.» Critics said the agreement seemed in danger of imminent collapse.

Attempts continued to persuade the refugees to return voluntarily. However, the UNHCR did not allow the Vietnamese officials, who accompanied relatives from Vietnam, into the camps. Nevertheless, refugees were so frightened that they discarded the food brought to them as a gift from home, fearing it might be poisoned.

On Feb. 25, Hanoi announced that it was sending 2,300 troops into the central highlands to educate people «against plots to get young people to flee to Cambodia» and «maintain infrastructure in 258 villages.»

Last Saturday morning, UNHCR officials were turned away when they tried to move 63 new refugee arrivals from a district police station to the refugee camp at Ban Lung, Ratanakiri, Cambodia. In the afternoon, Cambodian forces bound these refugees and hauled them back to the Vietnam border. The same day, they also transported the 61 refugees who reportedly had «volunteered» to return to Vietnam, refusing any UNHCR involvement.

According to one international Vietnam observer, Montagnard refugees have lost faith in the UNHCR, and they refuse to believe recent assurances of Vietnam´s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh, who told journalists: «No nation cares more for its citizens than Vietnam.»

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