(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should not carry out its threats to imminently return a group of ethnic Montagnards to Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says they are refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution if sent back. Sending them back would violate Cambodia’s international and domestic legal obligations.
Cambodia’s Interior Ministry has wrongly denied the claims of the 29 Montagnard refugees and is failing to cooperate with the UNHCR’s efforts to resettle them. The Cambodian government has not carried out a joint review process under which the UNHCR was to join a review of the government’s first-instance rejection decision. Cambodia then refused a UNHCR offer to relocate the refugees to a third country.
“Under no circumstances should Cambodia force these refugees back to Vietnam, where they would face severe persecution on political and religious grounds,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “If the government forces them back to Vietnam, Cambodia’s reputation as a regional leader in protecting the rights of refugees will be left in tatters.”
Members of the group reported receiving threats that they would be imprisoned if they ever tried to flee abroad so now they have great concerns about what sort of reception they will receive if returned to Vietnam.
One Montagnard in Phnom Penh who was imprisoned in Vietnam before fleeing to Cambodia told Human Rights Watch his fear of being returned: “They will not let me live in peace, they will arrest me, and they will do even more to me than they did before. They will say good words to try to convince people to go back. But when they go back they will be arrested. I know because I was in jail already.”
In mid-August 2017, a group of Cambodian Interior Ministry officials, including senior Refugee Department staff, traveled with Vietnamese authorities to some villages in Vietnam where family members of the asylum seekers in Cambodia live. Montagnard and nongovernmental group sources told Human Rights Watch that the officials intimidated some of the younger relatives to write letters saying it was safe for their relatives to return to Vietnam.
In April 2017, a Montagnard asylum-seeker who was returned to Vietnam from Cambodia was detained and interrogated for 12 days by Vietnamese authorities. In May, a video recording emerged on Vietnamese television of apparently forced confessions by Montagnards who claimed to be returned refugees
Vietnam imposes criminal penalties on dissenters returned under Article 91 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code, which provides 3 to 12 years in prison for those who “flee abroad or defect to stay overseas with a view to opposing the people’s administration.” Under that article, “organizers, coercers and instigators” of such movements face 5 to 15 years in prison; and those found to have committed “particularly serious crimes” – not defined – can be imprisoned for 12 to 20 years, or for life.
Vietnam has a long and well-documented history of persecuting Montagnards. Many from these upland ethnic minorities were allied with the French and Americans in Vietnam during the war years between 1946 and 1975, and many adopted Christianity. Since the Communist government assumed power, these groups have faced political persecution, forced repudiation of their faith, shuttering of Christian house churches, and constant monitoring and surveillance by Vietnam police, soldiers, and officials.
In 2005, Human Rights Watch documented the torture of Montagnards who were forced back from Cambodia to Vietnam. They had fled a government crackdown on activists who organized peaceful demonstrations demanding support for religious freedom and a return of their ancestral lands.
In 2015, Human Rights Watch documented intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and mistreatment in custody of Montagnards. Human Rights Watch found that Vietnamese authorities subjected Montagnards to constant surveillance if they were thought to have politically “autonomous thoughts,” or be involved in religious activities the government declared not “pure.” People arrested in this campaign suffered from mistreatment, including interrogations, beatings, and forced disappearances.
In April 2015, four Montagnards who returned to Vietnam from Cambodia disappeared from their village in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, while others familiar with the group were summoned for questioning.
In June 2016, the Cambodian government facilitated visits by Vietnamese officials, including some police officials from the refugees’ home villages, to more than 100 Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia, without their consent. The officials urged the assembled asylum seekers to return to Vietnam and promised to end persecution against them.
Cambodia is a State party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Under these international treaties, Cambodia has an obligation not to return people to countries where they have a well-founded fear of persecution or torture.
A Cambodian government Sub-Decree No. 224/2009 on Procedure for Recognition as a Refugee or Providing Asylum Rights to Foreigners in the Kingdom of Cambodia provides that a refugee “shall not be expelled or returned in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his or her life, freedom or rights would be threatened on account of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or particular political opinion.”
To comply with its international obligations, the Cambodian government should refrain from taking any action toward forcibly returning the 29 at-risk Montagnards, and initiate the promised joint review with the UNHCR to ensure a fair determination of their claims for protection.
The Vietnamese government should also immediately cease its systematic political persecution and restrictions on freedom of religion for the Montagnard population in the Central Highlands. Vietnam should permit the UNHCR to exercise its refugee protection mandate, and Hanoi should agree to refrain from pressuring refugees to return home.
“The Cambodian government is required to make sure that these Montagnard refugees are protected, and not to send them back into harm’s way in Vietnam,” Robertson said. “International donors and the UN Country Team for Cambodia should warn the Cambodian government that it will become a refugee rights pariah state if the Montagnards are forced back to Vietnam over the UN refugee agency’s objections.”