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Cambodia: Protect Montagnard Refugees Fleeing Vietnam
(New York, September 25, 2002) - Human Rights Watch today criticized the Cambodian government for sealing its borders and deporting hundreds of indigenous Montagnard refugees back to Vietnam, despite a fresh crackdown against Montagnards and ongoing mistreatment of returnees by Vietnamese authorities. The latest round of deportations began in April of this year.

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"Cambodia is in flagrant breach of its international obligations not to deport refugees to a place where they may face serious persecution. The international community should insist that the Cambodian government provide asylum to any new refugees from Vietnam."

Mike Jendrzejczyk
Washington director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to continue granting first asylum to new arrivals from the Central Highlands of Vietnam and to cease the harassment and arrest of Cambodian villagers suspected of helping Montagnard refugees.

"Cambodia is in flagrant breach of its international obligations not to deport refugees to a place where they may face serious persecution," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The international community should insist that the Cambodian government provide asylum to any new refugees from Vietnam."

Since the crumbling of a tripartite refugee repatriation agreement between the United Nations, Cambodia and Vietnam in April 2002, Cambodian authorities have deported more than 400 Montagnard asylum seekers back to Vietnam. Armed Cambodian militia have been dispatched to Cambodian villages bordering Vietnam's Central Highlands, where they have ordered Cambodian villagers not to help Montagnard refugees from Vietnam or face arrest.

As many as 100 Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam are now reportedly hiding in the forests in the Vietnam-Cambodia border region, where they are in imminent danger of being arrested or forcibly deported to Vietnam.

"Rather than punishing people trying to help refugees, Cambodia should be protecting the Montagnards, especially since there's been no let-up in the harassment and persecution of them in the Central Highlands," said Jendrzejczyk.

Human Rights Watch urged Cambodia's international donors to press Cambodia to fulfill its international obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Human Rights Watch also called on the Cambodian government to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to re-establish its field presence in Cambodia's northeastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri, which border Vietnam.

Since March, Cambodia and Vietnam have increased the presence of police and military along both sides of the border, with Cambodia posting between five and seven armed militia members each in many villages in Ratanakiri province. Vietnamese officials and undercover police are reportedly freely crossing the border and questioning villagers, in search of Montagnard refugees. In addition, Vietnamese plainclothes police officers are reportedly collaborating with wildlife traders to conduct regular surveillance of Cambodian villages near the Vietnam border, particularly those with Christian populations suspected of helping asylum seekers from Vietnam.

Cambodian police have threatened Cambodian villagers with arrest if they assist Montagnard refugees from Vietnam. Local officials have forced villagers in both Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri to thumbprint statements pledging not to help the refugees. Recent incidents of authorities threatening or arresting local villagers include the following:

  • On May 16, Cambodian police arrested a fisherman in Mondolkiri province because of his alleged assistance to Montagnards seeking help from UNHCR. After three months in prison, charges of human trafficking were dropped and he was released on August 12.

  • On July 5, Cambodian police arrested another man in Mondolkiri and detained him in prison on charges of hiding illegal immigrants. He was released on July 27, after charges were dropped.

  • In August, Cambodian local officials and military police officers issued threats and warnings to indigenous Jarai villagers in O Yadao district of Ratanakiri, Cambodia. On August 7, an official in Pate Commune, O Yadao threatened to hold Christian leaders responsible for the disappearance of an indigenous family, who appear to have gone into hiding after the head of household was allegedly harassed by provincial authorities. In response to a written complaint about the harassment of Christian leaders in O Yadao, provincial officials intervened by sending a team out to investigate the threats.

The flow of Montagnard refugees to Cambodia started in 2001, when more than 1,000 Montagnard refugees fled Vietnam after unrest in the Central Highlands in February 2001. A tripartite agreement between Vietnam, Cambodia and UNHCR that called for voluntary, UN-monitored repatriation of Montagnard refugees in Cambodia back to Vietnam, crumbled in March 2002, after Vietnamese officials barred UN monitoring teams from the Central Highlands. UNHCR's two provincial refugee camps were closed, and their 900 residents transported to Phnom Penh, where more than 700 of the refugees have being processed for resettlement in the United States.

The Cambodian government maintains that its current policy is not to accept any new Montagnard refugees but to deport them. Since early March, no Montagnards have been able to safely cross the border to seek refuge in Cambodia, where UNHCR personnel have been prohibited from freely traveling to border areas in Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri.