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Cambodia Gives Montagnards Choice: Third Country, or Vietnam

Cambodia has announced that Vietnamese Montagnard refugees seeking help from the United Nations in Phnom Penh will be sent back home if they do not agree to resettlement in a third country. Some of the refugees are asking the United Nations for more than it says it can deliver.

More than 700 Montagnards fleeing the Central Highlands of Vietnam have settled into U.N. refugee camps in Phnom Penh during the past seven months. The ethnic group claims it is persecuted by the Vietnamese government for its Christian beliefs, and that the government is trying to steal its valuable ancestral lands.

The Cambodian government, which shares close political and economic ties with Vietnam, has hesitantly complied with requests from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to harbor the Montagnards until their claims are processed.

Some of the Montagnards have been accepted for resettlement in the United States. But others say they do not want to go to a third country - they want the United Nations to get their lands back for them.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees representative in Cambodia, Thamrongsak Meechubot, says the refugees are asking for something the organization cannot provide.

"The problem we are facing is that the people who have been recognized as refugees, and we offer them resettlement to a third country, and they said they do not want to go for re-settlement, but they want to go back to Vietnam to claim and regain their land," he said.

In the meantime, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong says Cambodia will no longer host illegal immigrants who refuse to start a new life in a third country. The Foreign Affairs Ministry has also rejected requests from the UNHCR to investigate the claims of Montagnards hiding in Cambodia's northeastern jungle.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has criticized the Cambodian government for violating the U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention. The convention prohibits states from forcibly returning refugees to a country where they face the possibility of torture and persecution.

The rights group published a report earlier this month detailing the arrest and torture of Montagnards by Vietnamese authorities. The report also alleges that Montagnards who have willingly returned from Cambodia have faced harassment.

The UNHCR has rejected the claims of approximately 120 Montagnards. A similar number have received refugee status and have been accepted by the United States. More than 300 others are waiting to be processed.

Canada and Finland are due to interview Montagnards for possible resettlement during the next two months.

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