Officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees are expected to meet today with Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities in Ho Chi Minh City to try to jump-start a stalled repatriation plan for more than 1,000 Vietnamese Montagnards under the UNHCR’s protection in Cambodia.
Efforts to voluntarily send the Montagnards home to the Central Highlands have broken down, despite the signing in January of an initial repatriation deal.
That plan has been sharply criticized for not guaranteeing the Montagnards enough protection, and observers say Cambodian and Vietnamese officials are taking advantage of its vague wording to force back as many asylum seekers as quickly as possible.
Since the plan was signed, at least 63 Montagnards have been deported by Cambodian police in Ratanakkiri province before they could reach UNHCR-protected camps.
An Interior Ministry official said a family of four Montagnards was turned away at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border Friday when they tried to cross into Mondolkiri province. Cambodian officials say they have agreed with the Vietnamese to send all asylum seekers home—a move that contradicts the UNHCR’s insistence that any returns be voluntary.
Some 76 Montagnards have returned voluntarily.
Cambodian officials say the plan doesn’t define Cambodia‘s role in the repatriations. Sieng Lapresse, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ministry, said last week he wants a more “precise” agreement to come out of today’s talks.
Sieng Lapresse also said he wanted the term “voluntary repatriation” included in the text of any new signed agreement. Its absence from the current plan is one of the deal’s biggest weaknesses, critics say.
UNHCR regional representative Jahanshah Assadi and Nikola Mihajlovic, the agency’s Phnom Penh chief, will be in Ho Chi Minh City today. Foreign Affairs Undersecretary of State Long Visalo is expected to lead a Cambodian delegation that includes several senior Interior Ministry officials.
While Cambodian authorities continue to claim they are following the repatriation agreement, despite the deportations, the government has begun increasingly referring to Montagnards coming across the border as “illegal immigrants” rather than possible asylum seekers, thus subjecting them to the country’s immigration laws.
(Additional reporting by David Kihara)
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