After spending nearly six months in Phnom Penh, 13 Montagnard refugees said on Wednesday they don’t want to leave Cambodia—unless it is to return to Vietnam, free from oppression.
The Montagnards, a French term for about 30 tribes indigenous to Vietnam, arrived in the country after fleeing what they claim was religious and political persecution by Vietnamese authorities.
The group crossed the border into Ratanakkiri province in late October and for nearly two months evaded arrest until a joint U.N. and Interior Ministry mission transferred them to Phnom Penh.
Since then, the 13 have lived in a two-story house in a secluded community reachable only by a narrow concrete road. Lined with trees and with plenty of space between houses, the area looks more like a rural village than an urban neighborhood.
Behind a wide grey gate is where the Montagnards said they spend the vast majority of their days.
“We don’t want to go outside, because we are afraid because in Cambodia [there] are a lot of Vietnamese and we [are] afraid of Vietnamese,” said an 18-year-old refugee, who requested anonymity to protect his remaining family members in Vietnam.
He said the group worries that if Vietnamese people in Phnom Penh inform Hanoi of their whereabouts, they could be taken back to Vietnam, where rights groups claim the government routinely arrests, harasses and tortures the Montagnards.
While none of the 13 refugees could speak Khmer, the 18-year-old spoke in broken English with some Vietnamese phrases filling the gaps.
Safe inside the brick walls surrounding the house, he said the group spends much of their time sitting and talking in the shade of a large jackfruit tree in the front courtyard.
“We sleep and sometimes work in the garden,” he said. “Very boring.”
The garden behind the house isn’t much more than a sand lot with a few patches of weeds. On one side, the Montagnards had filled several plastic boxes with soil for growing vegetables.
“We have tomatoes and lettuce,” the 18-year-old said, pointing to a few small plants struggling to survive under the searing sun.
He said that every two or three days, U.N. employees bring them food, which the refugees cook using two ceramic charcoal stoves.
“We just make some rice,” he said.
In addition to the Montagnards, two security guards who said they work for the Interior Ministry’s refugee department were at the house on Wednesday.
“We posted security guards to give protection to the 13 Montagnards, because they are worried the Vietnamese will capture them,” said one of the guards, who declined to give his name.
In March, when the group was given refugee status, Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the government was seeking a third country to take in the group.
General Sopheak could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Kerm Sarin, director of the refugee department, said it is not his department’s responsibility to find a third country.
“You should ask UNHCR because I also want to know when they will send those people to the third country,” he said, referring to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mr. Sarin added that the refugees could only be resettled in a third country if they “get a guarantee from any humanitarian organization.”
“But if there is not a guarantee, they can stay in Khmer country forever because we already accepted those people as refugees,” he said.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for UNHCR, said no decision has been made about the group’s fate.
“We are still working with the Cambodian authorities to find appropriate solutions for the 13, be it local integration, voluntary return or resettlement,” Ms. Tan said in an email.
After the 13 made it to Phnom Penh, more than 100 other Montagnards crossed into Cambodia in waves. About half have since been arrested and deported, while 45 are in Phnom Penh waiting to apply for refugee status.
At the house in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, the 13 refugees conferred briefly in Jarai, their tribe’s language, when asked where the group would like to be resettled.
“We just want the U.N. to help my people and don’t want to have Vietnamese fighting my people and to leave my people in prison,” the 18-year-old said.
“I want to live in my Montagnard lands, I want to have my Degar place and my religion,” he added, using another term for Montagnard.
He said the group also hopes the U.N. will help the Montagnards in Vietnam retake legal ownership over the mountainous lands they have populated for generations.
Forests in the Central Highlands have long been illegally logged, mined or cleared for vast coffee and rubber plantations, often putting Montagnards at odds with Vietnamese officials and ethnic Vietnamese farmers.
“Vietnam people broke all our mountains in my homeland. In my Degar land, Vietnam say that is not my land,” the 18-year-old said.
“When the U.N. help me to freedom, I will go back. I just want my people to get back my land again.”
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