Photo Essay: Montagnard Refugees in Cambodia

I fled from my village after I saw 40 police ransack my neighbor's house and take him away to jail. I fled to Cambodia but in my heart I didn't want to come here. felt I was abandoning the people in Vietnam - not only my wife and children, but also the movement.Once I got here I realized that I couldn't return to Vietnam or I'd be arrested. The situation hiding in the forest was also very difficult. Police were hunting for us on both sides of the border. We ran out of food, we had no shelter from the rain, and some of us fell ill from malaria. Soon we realized we couldn't stay in Cambodia and we couldn't go back to Vietnam. We asked the U.N. to help us; otherwise we would have been arrested. Now all I wonder is, what about my wife and children in Vietnam - I've had no news about what happened to them after I left.
—Jarai refugee, March 2001

The Vietnamese government’s ongoing crackdown on indigenous Montagnards in the Central Highlands, in which hundreds of people have been arrested and some tortured, has generated a steady flow of refugees into Cambodia.

A fresh wave of asylum seekers crossed the border to Cambodia in the months following Easter weekend demonstrations in April 2004, which were violently suppressed by government security forces. For months, the Cambodian government refused to grant representatives from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) access to those seeking asylum. Hundreds of Montagnards, including children, hid in makeshift shelters in the forest during the height of the monsoon rains, suffering from lack of food, malaria, and dysentery.

In July 2004, the Cambodian government finally granted UNHCR access to the asylum-seekers. That month, Human Rights Watch accompanied the first U.N. convoys to the remote border province of Ratanakiri, where several hundred Montagnard asylum-seekers were picked up and transported to refugee shelters in Phnom Penh by the United Nations. Many of these photographs were taken at that time.

In December 2004, Cambodian government officials told UNHCR to close its temporary refugee camp in Ratanakiri and announced that they were tightening up border security to prevent new Montagnard asylum seekers entering the country. The combination of repression by Vietnam and border closure by Cambodia puts increasing numbers of Montagnards at risk of serious harm.

To the photos...

father and child refugee children
refugees refugee child