Some 72 Montagnard asylum seekers on Mondolkiri province who failed to qualify for UN protection have asked the local government there for help, according to provincial third deputy governor Nha Rang Chan, who said he probably won’t be able to do anything for them.
“I told them the government has no policy to let them get asylum in Cambodia. I just said sorry to them,” Nha Rang Chan said Tuesday.
A dozen Montagnards saying they represented the group met with Nha Rang Chan at his house Friday and Saturday to ask for land on which the group could resettle. None said they wanted to return to Vietnam, he said.
Without person of concern status from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Montagnards could be considered illegal immigrants by the Cambodian government and returned to Vietnam.
About 90 of the approximately 400 Montagnards who earlier this year fled to Cambodia from Vietnam’s Central Highlands were not given persons of concern status by UNHCR, said Indrika Ratwatte, a senior regional liaison officer for UNHCR.
Those Montagnards did not meet refugee criteria the UNHCR applies to asylum seekers worldwide, Ratwatte said. They were told this might be a possibility when they arrived under UN care in Cambodia, and were counseled and given some clothing and building materials after being told they had to leave the camp.
Ratwatte said the number of people who did not receive UNHCR protection was unusually low “because we gave them a very high degree of the benefit of the doubt,” during interviews.
All of those who crossed the border into Cambodia have complained of religious persecution and land rights abuses. Ratwatte said he did not know some of the Montagnards had approached Cambodian officials, saying once they left the camp “they will be left to their own means to fend for themselves.”
“A few of them have friends and relatives in Cambodia. They might want to stay with them,” he said. “We hope the government takes the humanitarian approach, like they have done so far.”
Nha Rang Chan said he is awaiting Ministry of Interior orders before deciding how to handle the Montagnards who left the camp. He said some remain there, despite having no UNHCR protection.
A Human Rights Watch Asia official said Tuesday Montagnards were being screened out too early in the process, adding that UNHCR should wait until more information about the conditions in the Central Highlands in available.
“We would be concerned about what these people are returning to,” the official said. “In the absence of clear information, it might be best to err on the side of caution.”