PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's recent deportation of four indigenous Montagnard asylum-seekers back to their home country has raised concerns about the safety of returnees and the plight of the indigenous group in Vietnam.
The Cambodian government deported the four in mid-June after one of them requested to return to Vietnam to be with his family and the others were deemed to be ineligible for asylum status.
But there is concern among rights activists that the Montagnards, a mostly Christian ethnic minority from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, could face harsh treatment upon their return. Rights activists say the mistreatment stems from the indigenous group's historic alliance with the United States military during the Vietnam War, its fight for land rights and protest against communist rule, and its religious beliefs.
Vietnam's government “systematically harasses and abuses the rights of those they believed to be leaders in a community or religion," said Human Rights Watch Asia director Phil Robertson. As the areas they lived in were remote, it was difficult for independent organizations to monitor the situation, he said.
“There's no doubt that all four will face very serious interrogation by Vietnam authorities when they return,” he said. “These Montagnards are not just at risk of persecution, they are just about certain to face persecution when they return. The only question will be how rough the Vietnam authorities get with them.”
Robertson said the harassment could take the form of restrictions of movement, potential physical abuse, interrogations, and surveillance. It is a concern shared by some refugees.
“l’m feeling very worried about facing pressure threat from the Vietnamese government,” a refugee in Cambodia, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, told VOA. He had fled Vietnam after he was arrested for having protested religious discrimination and being persecuted on religious grounds. He said he was under constant surveillance in Vietnam before he fled the country. "When I want to go somewhere they follow me," he said. "So l'm very afraid."
Hundreds of Montagnards are estimated to have fled to Cambodia since 2015 for alleged religious and political persecution. Since then, some have been sent to other countries, such as the Philippines, while others were deported.
Grace Bui, executive director of Bangkok-based Montagnard Assistance Project, said that losing contact with returnees posed a real risk. “Many Montagnards were sent back from Cambodia and we haven't heard from many of them,” she said in a message. “For example, one guy who was returned last year tried to contact the U.N. to let them know how the police abused him upon his return. The police took his phone away. Many got beaten up, some were being harassed every day and some went to prison,” she said.
The Vietnamese government was unavailable for comment.
But Vietnam is not alone in contributing to human rights breaches, Robertson said. With the United Nations refugee organization UNHCR having found third countries that would accept the Montagnards, Cambodia would just have to issue exit permits, he said — something he said Cambodia refused to do due to pressure from Vietnam.
"UNHCR is working with the Cambodian authorities to seek solutions for them. Resettlement under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State that has agreed to admit them as refugees with permanent residence status," said Caroline Gluck, UNHCR senior regional public information officer.
The refugee interviewed by VOA said he is worried about being deported to Vietnam soon. Yet, he hasn’t given up hope that he and the others would be allowed to move to another country after years in limbo.