More to leave this week, while 10 more still being assessed
Twenty-five Montagnard asylum-seekers held at a UN refugee center ordered by the government to close this month left Monday for resettlement in Canada.
Kitty McKinsey, a regional spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the 25, members of ethnic minorities from Vietnam’s central highlands who claim persecution, flew out of Cambodia on Monday evening, bound for the city of Quebec.
Another 25 will leave for Canada before the end of the week, she said.
Of the remaining 25 Montagnards, 10 have been denied refugee status and will be deported to Vietnam and the cases of 10 others are still being assessed by UNHCR and government officials. Four more will be resettled in the US, and one other has been accepted to the US as an immigrant.
“We are extremely grateful to Canada for opening its doors. Resettlement is a very valuable protection tool,” Ms McKinsey said, adding that it was still unknown when those who are being sent back to Vietnam will be deported.
In a letter dated Nov 29, the government ordered UNHCR to close its center in Phnom Penh by Jan 1 and said that all asylum-seekers awaiting screening would be deported back to Vietnam.
However, after UN officials expressed the need for more time to resettle the Montagnards with refugee status, the government allowed the center to stay on until Feb 15.
The refugees who have been permitted entry into Canada have been living at the refugee center in Phnom Penh for between one and six years. Out of the 50, 33 are female and 17 are male. The refugees consist of adults as old as 67 and two babies who were born within the last six months.
During their time spent at the center, UNHCR has been able to teach them basic English and some computer skills.
Police Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for Interior Ministry, said he was unaware of the resettlements and referred questions back to UNHCR.
He said last week that all Montagnards entering Cambodia in the future would be deported to Vietnam and expressed doubt that any more would come here looking for asylum.
Rights workers have said that such treatment would violate the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Cambodia is one of the few Asian nations to have ratified.
Ms McKinsey said that she did not think it a “very likely prospect” that Montagnards would entirely cease arrivals in Cambodia. She also said that Cambodia was obligated to treat all future Montagnard asylum-seekers like other refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
Not only will the refugee center in Phnom Penh close on Feb 15, but a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Vietnam, Cambodia and UNHCR in 2005 that protects all Montagnards who are sent back to Vietnam is also coming to an end.
Ms McKinsey said UNHCR would discuss the memorandum’s status with Vietnam in the near future and said UNHCR would conduct regular missions into Vietnam’s central highlands to check on the returnees’ well-being.
She added that it could take “many years” until Cambodia fulfills all of its responsibilities under the refugee convention, even though UNHCR had trained Cambodian officials on processing asylum-seekers.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)