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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 May, 2005, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Vietnam refugees look to new life
By Guy De Launey
BBC, Cambodia

There was little danger of any of the 27 Montagnards getting charged for excess baggage.

The group of ethnic minority people from Vietnam's central highlands arrived at Phnom Penh airport toting just a small holdall each, stamped with the logo of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

One of the group leaving for asylum in Finland
The refugees are heading for a completely different environment
Each Montagnard also sported a more discrete IOM sticker on their clothing, as if they were an organised tour group heading for the temples at Angkor Wat.

They were going a lot further than that.

Oulu is one of Finland's largest cities. It is in the north of the country, not too far from Lapland.

In terms of environment, it is about as far as you can get from the jungles of central Vietnam. That, however, is where this particular group of Montagnards will have to learn to call home.

They say they were driven to leave their real homeland by religious persecution and land-grabs.

The Montagnards actually comprise a number of ethnic minority groups, but almost all of them are members of an evangelical Christian sect called Dega Thinlan.

Some of them worked with the United States forces during the Vietnam war. They claim the authorities have punished them by taking away their land to grow cash crops like coffee and rubber.

I miss my family very much - my father and mother. But I've decided to go to Finland because I want something good in my life
Montagnard refugee
The numbers of Montagnards coming over the border into Cambodia increased dramatically after last year's so-called Easter Uprising, when thousands protested against religious persecution during Easter week.

The protests were followed by a crackdown. Fearing for their lives, or simply tired of constant harassment, hundreds of Montagnards fled, many of them trekking through the jungle to reach Cambodia.

Since then, they have been stuck in limbo. Many of them wanted to fight for the return of what they said were their tribal lands, but Cambodia was unwilling to allow the Montagnards to stay.

The choice was clear - accept resettlement to a third country, or return to an uncertain welcome in Vietnam.

Most of the refugees have now opted for a new start.

They have no choice - it's not permissible for refugees to shop for resettlement countries
Teresa Woods, UNHCR
Perhaps they had in mind the well-established Montagnard community in North Carolina in the United States, but the rules on resettlement mean that some of them are heading for Finland instead.

"If UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] establishes an agreement with a country willing to accept refugees, then that's essentially the way it happens," said the agency's resettlement officer Teresa Woods, as she prepared to see the Oulu party onto their flight.

"It's not necessarily based on who's already in which countries. Actually they have no choice - it's not permissible for refugees to shop for resettlement countries," she said.

It is possible for refugees to refuse to go to a particular country. But the Montagnards at the airport had accepted their future lay in Finland.

The men who comprised the majority of the group laughed nervously as they waited in front of the airport's decorative waterfall, all wearing pastel-coloured shirts with "New Man" written across the pocket.

"I wouldn't want to go if I had enough freedom in Vietnam," one young man told me.

"I miss my family very much - my father and mother. But I've decided to go to Finland because I want something good in my life."

Another, a church activist, had previously returned to Vietnam, before fleeing once more, leaving his wife and child behind.

"I want to go to Finland because I'm afraid to go back to Vietnam. If I go back, they might hurt me."

None of them knew anything more than basic facts about Finland. Just an end to an existence of uncertainty seemed to be enough.

Other Montagnards will follow, and efforts are being made to prepare them for what lies in store.


In a classroom at Phnom Penh's Institute of Public Health, Finnish holiday brochures lie on a table next to snacks wrapped in banana leaves.

In front of a whiteboard, a tall African man is explaining the intricacies of Finland's social security system, while a small group of Montagnard men listen intently.

Saed Guled was once a refugee himself. He arrived in Finland from Somalia 15 years ago. Now he works for the IOM, passing on first-hand knowledge of what it is like to arrive in a place which is completely different from anywhere you have ever known.

Saed Guled from the IOM (right) and translator in classroom
Saed Guled (R) a former refugee himself, gives lessons on Finland
"They ask all kinds of questions," said Saed. "The housing system, the weather, the climate. I explain to them that we have a long winter, very dark, the days are very short with only five or six hours of light. They get confused and they cannot totally understand."

Yet still the Montagnards smile as their departure date approaches.

Other groups will go to Canada and the United States. About 100 have been refused refugee status and may have to return to Vietnam.

The Vietnamese government insists that any Montagnards who return will not be punished or persecuted.

It is a line that has failed to convince those who are willing to leave behind friends, families and homes for a leap into the unknown.

UNHCR warns on Montagnards
18 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam refugees emerge from hiding
21 Jul 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Police disperse Vietnam protest
11 Apr 04 |  Asia-Pacific
EU attacks Vietnam 'repression'
21 Nov 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Religion blamed for Vietnam unrest
17 Mar 01 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Vietnam
24 May 03 |  Country profiles

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