Montagnard refugees and asylum-seekers housed at UN facilities in Phnom Penh said Thursday that they had rejected overseas resettlement in order to draw attention to the plight of their hill tribe communities in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Based on interviews on Thursday at two UN refugee agency sites in Phnom Penh, housing an estimated 280 predominately Jarai minority members, some said they wanted to resettle in the US, but many said they wanted to remain in Cambodia to highlight their cause.
“I know that [the UN refugee agency] cannot help us with our land, but we will wait for the international community to help us,” said Romah Hoan, 38, who had been in hiding on the Vietnam-Cambodia border since 2001. He has now been granted refugee status in Phnom Penh.
“I will wait here until the international community and the UN have found a solution in Vietnam,” he said, adding that he and others would not return to the Central Highlands unless there was UN monitoring.
Since Montagnards began fleeing across the Cambodian border from Vietnam’s Central Highlands in June—citing repression of their religion and confiscation of their ancestral lands—566 are now under protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at four sites in Phnom Penh and one site in Banlung, Ratanakkiri province.
The refusal of resettlement by some 80 Montagnards, who have been granted UN refugee status, and possibly 150 more whose status as refugees is still pending, has baffled UNHCR staff.
Last week, interior and foreign ministry officials also finished verifying the resettlement desires of the Montagnards, “a clear majority” of whom have confirmed their wish to remain in Cambodia, UNHCR field and protection officer Cathy Shin said in a statement Thursday.
“There was no indication on whether the Montagnards who wished to remain in Cambodia would be allowed to stay,” Shin said.
Owing to their refusal to resettle, Romah Y Lut, 47, said he and others at one of the UN sites in Phnom Penh feared the government would try to deport them back to Vietnam.
“Before I decided to leave my country I decided that my death was not important. The important thing, and the reason we came, is for the international community and the UN to know the conditions of the people [in the Central Highlands],” Romah Y Lut said.
“We will not go. We would rather die here. If they want, they should kill us here,” he said.
Further politicizing the Montagnard presence in Phnom Penh, a petition was released on Tuesday calling for the inclusion of the US-based Montagnard Foundation Inc and the Italy-based Transnational Radical Party in talks between UNHCR, Vietnam and Cambodia on the resettlement issue.
The petition contained the names of hundreds of Montagnards in Phnom Penh, and was addressed to UNHCR’s chief in Geneva, Rudd Lubbers.
“Are we going to be forced to go to the third countries or to be forced to go back to Vietnam without conditions? Or will we be able to go back to our beloved Central Highlands with full protection of the international community,” the statement read.
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and head of the government’s human rights committee, was too busy to comment on Thursday. Foreign Ministry Secretary of State Long Visalo, who has been dealing with the Montagnard issue on behalf of the government, hung up when contacted by telephone on Thursday.
At a second UN site in Phnom Penh, housing around 200 Montagnards, the atmosphere was more relaxed and the opinions on resettlement more varied. However, some Montagnards opting for resettlement said that pressure was being exerted to reach a blanket rejection of overseas relocation.
“Nobody wants to stay here, we want to go to the US,” said 64-year-old Siu E.
Sonuck Ksor, 36, agreed: “If we live here we have no safety. If we go to the US we have more chance to study, get an education and find a solution for our land,” he said.
Though there had been some pressure from the anti-resettlement lobby at the site, it did not amount to a serious problem as both groups keep their distance, Sonuck Ksor said.
“We do not talk to each other much. But when we pray, we pray together,” he said.
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