As many as 30 Montagnard asylum seekers, many of whom had been denied refugee status in Cambodia, were turned away from the Bangkok offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and are now living in Thailand independently, officials said Wednesday.
“They’re on their own in Bangkok,” regional UNHCR spokesman Kitty McKinsey said. “We’re not registering them. For their own protection, they should return to Cambodia,” she said.
McKinsey said 20 Montagnards arrived at the Bangkok office Monday while the others had traveled from Cambodia at the end of May. She said the group was in various stages of the asylum application process but declined to discuss individual cases.
“There is also a principle of international law that people who are seeking asylum must apply for asylum in the first safe country they go to,” McKinsey said. She added that, unlike Thailand, Cambodia is a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention.
UNHCR was unaware of where or how the Montagnards were being housed and fed in Bangkok, she said.
Toshitsuki Kawauchi, UNHCR protection officer in Phnom Penh, said that UNHCR was unable to prevent Montagnard asylum seekers who had been denied refugee status from leaving the UN agency’s closed sites in Phnom Penh.
“These Montagnards were aware that their claim for refugee status has not been successful, so that they decided to leave UNHCR-[government] sponsored accommodation,” Kawauchi said in an e-mail.
“We were not informed of their future intention and UNHCR is not in the position to prevent their departures from the arranged accommodation, where necessary assistance and protection have been duly provided by the Cambodian Government and UNHCR,” he wrote.
Sara Colm, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Montagnards denied refugee status often experience desperation.
“Many are absolutely terrified of the prospect of being sent back to Vietnam and would do anything to avoid that,” she said, adding that the lack of outside counsel made some Montagnards feel they had no one to turn to when rejected.