(New York) -- Human Rights Watch today called for a halt to the imminent repatriation to Vietnam of Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia under U.N. auspices.

Human Rights Watch criticized the planned repatriation this week of Montagnards by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a rushed procedure that lacks guarantees of safety or ongoing protection for returnees. To date, UNHCR officials have spent only a few days in the Central Highland provinces of Vietnam, from which most of the asylum seekers originate-insufficient time to establish that there has been a fundamental or durable improvement in the human rights situation there.

"This hasty, ill-conceived operation is not in the best interests of the returnees, and offers no guarantees of protection on return," said Sidney Jones, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "It also undermines UNHCR's own standards on voluntary repatriation-particularly since the plan was flawed to begin with."

Human Rights Watch proposed that UNHCR extend the timeframe for repatriation so that the agency has more time to assess conditions in the Central Highlands and counsel refugees about their options. In addition, UNHCR should secure guarantees from the government of Vietnam that UNHCR can establish an ongoing presence in the Central Highlands in order to monitor the refugees' status after return. Quick site visits, which are dependent on the local authorities' goodwill, are not sufficient.

Pressure from the Vietnamese government to return the refugee Montagnard population-referred to by the Vietnamese authorities as 'illegal migrants'-has been intense. A tri-partite agreement among the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments and UNHCR was reached in late January. The agreement includes only two sentences on post-return monitoring and requires that UNHCR obtain permission from Vietnamese authorities before any visits to the Central Highlands.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the lack of protection guarantees in the tripartite agreement when it was signed. These concerns appear to have been realized in the proposal to move people back across the border in a rushed operation. The Vietnamese authorities are demanding swift returns, and UNHCR and the Cambodian government seem prepared to comply, even if that means contravening UNHCR's own standards on voluntary repatriation.

"Without UNHCR monitors stationed in the Central Highlands, there are no guarantees for the safety of returnees or their families," said Jones. "Protection and safety seem to come a poor second to the wishes of the Vietnamese authorities-who just two weeks ago sentenced to prison terms four Montagnard refugees forced back across the border last year."

On January 25, a court in Chu Se District, Gia Lai province, sentenced four Montagnards to prison terms of up to six and a half years for "organizing illegal migrations." The official Vietnamese News Agency reported that Cambodian officials arrested and deported two of the men in April 2001 with a group of thirty-two people; the other two men were deported in mid-May with a group of fifty-one people.

"The signing of the tripartite agreement does not mean that UNHCR can cut corners on its protection mandate for asylum seekers or rush them into making important decisions such as whether to return home," said Jones. "Nor should Cambodia ignore its obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention."

More than 1,000 Montagnard asylum seekers, who fled the Central Highlands of Vietnam after unrest in February 2001, are currently sheltered at two sites operated by UNHCR in Cambodia. Human Rights Watch has documented the forcible return of more than 500 Montagnards from Cambodia to Vietnam over the last eleven months.