Cambodia has deported more than 100 members of the Montagnard ethnic minority to Vietnam, after a UN agency ruled they do not qualify for refugee status. Human rights officials are concerned the asylum seekers could be heading home to a hostile country.
Cambodian police with shields and electric batons blocked off the street leading to a UN refugee camp in the capital's suburbs early this morning, to prevent Montagnards from fleeing the compound before police loaded them into buses headed for Vietnam.
The Montagnards had slipped across the Cambodian border over the past several months, seeking asylum from what they say is a brutally oppressive government. They claim Vietnam has persecuted them for their Christian beliefs and taken their ancestral land in central Vietnam's highlands.
But the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said this group of Montagnards did not qualify for refugee status, which would allow them to resettle in a third country.
UNHCR associate protection officer Inna Gladkova said the UN refugee agency had fulfilled its obligations to the Montagnards, with the asylum seekers going through a thorough interview and appeal process. Other Montagnards are still in Cambodia awaiting a ruling.
Human rights groups have condemned the deportations and criticized the Cambodian government for forcing the asylum seekers back to Vietnam.
Ny Chakrya, head of the monitoring section at the local rights group ADHOC, says the Montagnards could not be assured of security at home.
"We have concern that the UNHCR has not a monitor or has not office to monitor on the Montagnards who was today returned," said Ny Chakrya. "The problem is that the Vietnamese government can threaten or can make a problem with the Montagnards because we have information that Vietnam government punish some Montagnards who were returned."
Through police radios, the sound of Montagnards crying and shouting behind the camp's tall fence could be heard as officers ordered them onto the buses that would take them to the border. Members of the group tearfully peered through the bus windows or covered their heads as the vehicles drove away flanked by a half dozen police cars and motorcycles blaring sirens.
Speaking by phone from inside the camp before the deportations, Montagnard Romas Ing said the group does not want to live in Cambodia or the US. He said they want to live in Vietnam, but only if they have freedom and their land is returned.