Fifty-seven of the 140 Montagnard refugees remaining in Cambodia after fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands almost two years ago will leave for the US by the end of the month under a resettlement deal brokered last year to end a mounting refugee crisis on Cambodia’s border with its eastern neighbor.
The group is what is left of nearly 1,000 refugees who secretly crossed into Cambodia in the wake of a government crackdown on demonstrations in the Central Highlands in 2001.
US immigration officials have not yet cleared the rest of the Montagnards, who remain in Phnom Penh, according to Mohammad Al-Nassery, program officer with the International Organization of Immigration. IOM has been caring for the group with staff from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Almost all of those sent to the US have settled in the state of North Carolina, where a large community of former Montagnard refugees lives. But for those left behind, the months have dragged by and disillusionment with the US government has settled over the refugees.
“We should have stayed in Vietnam and died with our families,” one refugee said last month.
Rights groups say Montagnards continue to arrive in Cambodia’s eastern provinces, but are being arrested and deported before they can ask for asylum.
The US-based Human Rights Watch estimated that hundreds have been illegally deported since 2001.
The exodus, which reached its height in mid-2001, strained relations between Cambodian officials and Hanoi, which demanded the government here return any Montagnards found in Cambodia.
A US intervention further frayed the diplomatic ties between Cambodia and its one-time political patron.
The government claims any people now caught crossing the board are illegal immigrants, despite reports of continued religious and land rights abuses in the Central Highlands.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle)
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