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Rights groups skeptical of Vietnam's overture to banned group

Asylum-seeking Montagnards in Cambodia urged to return home

Rights groups skeptical of Vietnam's overture to banned group

A Vietnamese Montagnard family is moved to a United Nations safe house in Phnom Penh in this 2004 file photo. (Photo by AFP)

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh
Cambodia

June 9, 2016

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Vietnamese officials visited more than 100 Montagnards asylum seekers in Cambodia, urging them to return to Vietnam and promising an end to persecution, according to the Jesuit Refugee Service. 

Mercy Sister Denise Coghlan said three carloads of senior Vietnamese police and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arrived early June 7. The group met with the 125 Montagnards encouraging them to return home with a guarantee of safety. 

"I find it very strange that they actually came to the place," she told ucanews.com. 

Scores of Christian Montagnards have fled Vietnam in recent years, amid ongoing harassment and persecution. Arrests, threats and even torture in custody have been reported.

"We have two main goals. One is that the religious persecution and ethnic persecution in Vietnam stop," she said. "If they're turning around and saying they'll do something about that, that's positive ... on the other hand, the people who fled because they were really persecuted, because they suffered torture — they should be given refugee status and have the option to resettle somewhere else."

The U.N. refugee agency said it was concerned by the meeting. Regional spokeswoman Vivian Tan said the U.N. didn't organize or support the visit and were concerned "as it's unusual for officials from a country to meet people who say they fled the country due to a fear of persecution."

Officials from the Vietnamese Embassy and Cambodian government could not be reached for comment.

Representing different ethnicities living in Vietnam's highlands, Montagnards typically practice banned versions of Christianity and Catholicism, which has drawn ire from the Vietnamese government.

Though ostensibly supportive of religious freedom, the government places tight restrictions on which forms of each religion can be followed. Those who practice "unrecognized" religions face severe persecution. In a Human Rights Watch report issued last year, the government was found to have launched a high-level campaign to clamp down on what it refers to as "evil ways," or unrecognized religions.

In the face of such treatment, hundreds of Montagnards have fled to Cambodia over the years, seeking refugee status and resettlement in a third country. The latest group of more than 200 began pouring into Cambodia in late 2014, seeking asylum from the heavily repressive Vietnamese government.

The Cambodian government, meanwhile, has had a mixed protection record. Over the past year scores have been forcibly deported back to Vietnam, while more have been pressured to return "voluntarily." After threatening to deport more, the government caved to pressure early this year and began investigating the claims of some 200 asylum seekers. But just 13 have thus far been given refugee status — all moved to a processing center in the Philippines last month.

While some have been hopeful the visit could reflect a changing attitude by the Vietnamese government, Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said he saw the move as nothing other than a "clear case of intimidation."

"Quite clearly the Vietnamese government has shown time and time again that it does not have the best interests of the Montagnards at heart."

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