UNHCR, Cambodia Working Together to Help Christian Montagnards

An influx of ethnic Montagnards from Vietnam to Cambodia over the last few months is creating a difficult challenge for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a humanitarian group reported last Friday. However, Refugees International says that the refugee flow should also generate international pressure on Vietnam to change policies that are causing the mostly-Christian Montagnards to flee to Cambodia.

“Montagnard hill tribes in Vietnam have long encountered discrimination from Hanoi,” the Washington, D.C.-based group said in a statement released last Friday. “Many of them helped the U.S. during the Vietnam war. They are Christians in a communist country. Their native lands have been targets of Vietnamese development plans to increase the production of coffee and other crops. They are an independent force in a land of discipline and central direction.”

Refugees International reported that the harassment that many Montagnards face in Vietnam has prompted them to flee across the border to Cambodia, and the refugee flow will continue until Vietnam ends its oppressive policies.

In the past, Montagnards have wanted to come to the U.S., and over the years the U.S. has offered to resettle them as political refugees, however, now about two-thirds of the more than 500 Montagnards currently in UNHCR shelters in Phnom Penh say they want to stay in Cambodia and not come to the U.S.

“We don’t know if Cambodia will allow us to stay, but we don’t want to go back to Vietnam,” a Montagnard in a UNHCR shelter in Phnom Penh told Refugees International. “We will die in Cambodia with UNHCR.”

As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Cambodia is obligated not to force refugees back to the countries they fled to escape persecution. However, Cambodia has said that it won’t allow the Montagnards to stay, and so the U.S. resettlement of Montagnards has been “an important safety valve,” according to Refugees International.

For years Cambodia maintained a harsh policy towards refugees from Vietnam, sometimes forcing them back home. Cambodia also refused to allow the UNHCR to operate in border areas. However, this year Cambodia and the UNHCR have been cooperating to protect Montagnards, both in border areas and in Phnom Penh. UNHCR has also made agreements with other countries, such as Sweden, to resettle Montagnards.

In Phnom Penh, the UNHCR is quickly moving Montagnards who decide to resettle to safe sites and processing their cases. However, the UNHCR reports that there is unwillingness of some Montagnards to leave Cambodia.

“Everything is working well except the people,” a UNHCR official said.

Refugees International reports that in a meeting with 147 Montgnards at UNHCR Shelter 2, one of four UN shelters in Phnom Penh, all but 23 said they wanted to stay in Cambodia. Many said they would stay in Cambodia until the UNHCR gets them their land back in Vietnam, though that is beyond UNHCR’s authority.

However, the UNHCR assumes that as more and more Montagnards accept the idea of resettlement, others will follow in increasing numbers. This is what happened during a similar period in 2001-2002 after security forces forcibly broke up protests by about 20,000 Montagnards, triggering a mass exodus into Cambodia. In the wake of the crackdown, more than 1,000 Montagnards won asylum in the United States after fleeing to Cambodia from the Central Highlands in 2001.

Refugees International reports that the real problem today is Vietnam. “Not only are Hanoi’s policies continuing to drive people out, but Vietnam has not agreed to UNHCR requests to establish more orderly procedures for dealing with refugees,” the agency stated. There are continuing reports that Vietnam sends its troops into Cambodia to capture refugees.

Refugees International has made several recommendations concerning the Montagnard hill people, including:
- Encouraging the international community to make Vietnam’s treatment of Montagnards a human rights issue of world wide concern.
- Pressing the government of Vietnam ease its oppressive policies toward Montagnard hill people by protecting their land and their freedom to worship freely.
- Pressing the government of Vietnam to work with UNHCR to resolve border problems.
- Continuing UNHCR efforts to enlarge the number of countries willing to resettle Montagnards.
- Encouraging the government of Cambodia to continue its fruitful cooperation with UNHCR to resolve the problem.