UN Refugee Agency Accused of Inciting Montagnard Exodus

"In recent days, the UNHCR continues wrong actions to lure the ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands to illegally cross the border to Cambodia."
( [email protected] ) Aug 06, 2004 11:08 AM EDT

The capitol city of Vietnam has accused the U.N. agency on refugees of inciting ethnic Montagnards -- often dubbed "America's forgotten allies" -- to cross the border into Cambodia, state media reported earlier this week. Around 100 of the Christian Montagnards from Vietnam's Central Highlands have managed to reach the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Meanwhil, human rights groups say at least 200 more are hiding in the region.

"In recent days, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) continues wrong actions to lure the ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands to illegally cross the border to Cambodia," Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said in a statement.

According to Reuters, the UNHCR said 42 Vietnamese Montagnard asylum-seekers emerged from the jungle of northeast Cambodia last weekend and more were expected at the U.N. refugee offices in the region.

"The work by UNHCR is wrongful, serving the plot of some people hostile with Vietnam," Dung said in the statement carried by several state-run newspapers on Sunday.

Dung insisted that the tribal people in Cambodia were not asylum-seekers and said that the UNHCR had caused "instability in the border area between Vietnam and Cambodia".

On Thursday Dung said dozens of Vietnam's tribal people were staying in camps in Phnom Penh. Hanoi may allow their return and it was ready to talk with Cambodia and the UNHCR if some of them wanted to go to a third country and were accepted by that country.

The Montagnards, who sided with the United States in the Vietnam War, say they fled persecution in Vietnam following Easter Day protests in April over land and religious rights.

According to a New York-based Human Rights Watch organization, hundreds of Montagnards were wounded and at least 10 were killed in the Central Highlands by security forces and civilians acting on their behalf on April 10-11.

In the Sunday statement, Dung quoted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as saying Cambodia did not allow "its territory to be turned into refugee camps".

Cambodian troops have reportedly rounded up some Montagnards and handed them back to Vietnamese border guards, but it was unclear how many more have fled or died in the jungle.

The Easter Day protests were the first large-scale demonstrations in the Central Highlands since February 2001, when 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.

Last week, Vietnam stated that it was willing to consider the third-country resettlement of Montagnard refugees.