Almost two years since the latest wave of Montagnard asylum-seekers began crossing into Ratanakkiri province claiming to be fleeing persecution in Vietnam, an immigration official said on Wednesday that some of the 170 remaining in Phnom Penh had two weeks to return home or face forcible repatriation.
Despite initially blocking the Montagnards from registering as refugees, in January the government announced the group could have their claims assessed.
Kem Sarin, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said on Wednesday that the entire group had had their claims evaluated by officials.
“We have interviewed those Montagnard asylum-seekers one by one for the last few months and we evaluated that those people have no right to receive asylum from a third country because their answers do not comply with the convention on refugees,” Mr. Sarin said of the U.N. convention signed by Cambodia.
He also said that some in the group had passed the evaluation, though did not say how many. Those who failed had been allowed to stay in Cambodia during the registration process and now have two weeks to return to Vietnam or be sent back by force, he said.
“Those Montagnard asylum-seekers must leave Cambodia within two weeks after the decision of the immigration department. In the case that they do not leave, we will arrest them and send them back to Vietnam,” he said, adding that he expected the UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, to assist with the repatriation.
“I believe that the UNHCR has helped send some Montagnards back to Vietnam before, after they lost their right to get asylum, and I think that the UNHCR will send those people back to Vietnam soon because we will not allow them to stay in Cambodia anymore,” he said.
Contacted by email, Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, said it “was not aware” of the decision.
The decision to deport some of the Montagnards signals the end of a long road for them after attempting to settle outside Vietnam.
A mostly Christian group of indigenous minorities concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the Montagnards claim they are subjected to widespread persecution and surveillance in their homeland. Many claim members of the group have been persecuted since they sided with the U.S. during the First Indochina War.
An initial group of 13 Montagnards who crossed into Ratanakkiri in late 2014 was flown to the Philippines in May after receiving refugee status in Phnom Penh. They have not yet been resettled in a third country.
But the rest have not been so lucky. The latest wave of Montagnards started fleeing to Cambodia in late 2014, with ethnic Jarai communities along the northeast border giving shelter to the refugees while police scoured the forest threatening arrest. Most made it to Phnom Penh to have their claims processed, but at least 47 were caught by police before they made it and sent back to Vietnam.
In June, Vietnamese officials visited the Montagnards while they were waiting for their asylum claims to be processed in Phnom Penh in an effort to convince them to return to their homeland, assuring them they would not face persecution.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called the government’s claim that it had adhered to its international obligation to protect refugees “a cruel sham,” noting Cambodia’s enthusiasm over an unrelated deal with Australia to accept refugees being held on the island nation of Nauru in exchange for a generous aid package.
“This decision shows that Cambodia’s professed commitment to receiving and supporting refugees was a cruel sham all along, designed to dupe the international community into believing that the government actually cared about human rights,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.
“The government acted pro-refugee when those people came with a big development assistance package like that provided by Australia in its refugee dumping deal, but when those fleeing persecution turned out to be poor Montagnards from an influential neighbor like Vietnam, Cambodia bent over backwards to deny them their rights and pressure them to go back,” he said.
“There is a cruel double standard operating here, based on the yardstick of what Phnom Penh thinks it can extract from any given group of asylum-seekers and refugees, and by pushing these Montagnards back, Cambodia is earning political brownie points from the Vietnam government.”
Correction: A previous version of this article was incorrect in stating that Kem Sarin, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said that all Montagnard asylum-seekers remaining in Phnom Penh would be returned to Vietnam. He said that all of the asylum-seekers had had their claims processed, and that those who failed must return to Vietnam.