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Viet Nam: repatriated Montagnards seem well and in good spirits – UN

Viet Nam: repatriated Montagnards seem well and in good spirits – UN

The first Montagnard people repatriated to Viet Nam from Cambodia earlier this year under an agreement with the United Nations refugee agency seem to be faring well despite concerns raised by human rights groups, the agency reported today after on-site visits to villages in the Southeast Asian country's Central Highlands.

"This was a very encouraging and enlightening visit. It's a process well worth continuing," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regional representative Hasim Utkan said from Pleiku in the central highlands, noting that the returnees did not appear to be in any way endangered or threatened, and many seemed happy to be back with their families.

"There seems to have been a genuine and positive attempt by the authorities to provide assistance to the returnees – such as kerosene, rice, salt and seedlings, as well as offering them jobs or vocational training to help them reintegrate," the Bangkok-based Mr. Utkan added of his two-day visit to 21 Montagnards, accompanied by a national staff member who had previously made five monitoring visits to the region.

Under the agreement with UNHCR, Viet Nam guaranteed that the returnees, who hold Christian beliefs, would not be punished, discriminated against or prosecuted. So far, 137 have returned.

The two officials were accompanied by three Vietnamese officials during their interviews with the Montagnards in districts bordering Cambodia, but the interviewees generally appeared relaxed. Among them were three cases brought to UNHCR's attention by a human rights group who said two were in hiding and one allegedly in prison.

"We met with all three cases in their homes," Mr. Utkan said. "The two supposedly in hiding said they had not hidden and seemed astonished by the allegation, and the person allegedly imprisoned said he had visited an administrative centre for half a day but had never been imprisoned. All three appeared in good physical health and spirits."

The mission also followed up on three other people over whom a non-governmental organization (NGO) had reported concerns. The three, in two separate villages, were found to be in good health and not frightened as reported. Indeed, the mission was emotionally greeted by the extended families of two male returnees, who were visibly happy to see their men folk back home.

"We could visit whoever we wanted," Mr. Utkan said. "We asked the Vietnamese authorities to see specific cases, and this was arranged without problems. We also asked to see a mixture of returnees and deportees, which was also arranged."