Officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees accompanied nearly 70 Khmer Krom asylum-seekers back to a pagoda Tuesday, after the group spent Monday night sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the UNHCR’s office in Phnom Penh.
The 67 asylum-seekers from Vietnam went to the UNHCR office on Monday morning, after police moved many out of the Phnom Penh pagoda where they were staying. Members of the group first began leaving Vietnam in April.
“UNHCR held several meetings with various actors involved, including national, international NGOs, and government and local authorities. This resulted in a decision that the group was welcome to go back to the pagoda for the time being,” the UNHCR said in a Tuesday statement.“UNHCR strongly encouraged the group to go back to the pagoda where their basic needs will be covered instead of having women and children sleeping on the streets of Phnom Penh.”
The UNHCR said that 59 of the group are registered asylum-seekers, but that the process of deciding whether they have refugee status is not finalized.
“This means that at present UNHCR has limited responsibility,” the UNHCR said.
Hou Dang, a Buddhist monk from southern Vietnam, said Tuesday that he recognized two Vietnamese police officers from his home province outside the UNHCR.
“They came here to monitor us. I’m really concerned with my safety,” he said, adding that he fled his home when his grandparents, father and four uncles were arrested.
The Vietnamese Embassy and the Ministry of Interior could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Kem Sokha, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president, said the group should be granted Cambodian citizenship.
“According to international rights principles they have the right to live in another country if they cannot stay in their own. The Khmer Krom people are Cambodian and should be granted Cambodian citizenship,” he said. “The Vietnamese authorities don’t respect their culture.”
The UNHCR said spokespersons for the group asked the UN agency to help solve their problems regarding lack of religious freedom in Vietnam.
“UNHCR clarified their role in Cambodia and explained that it is a nonpolitical humanitarian organization,” the statement said.
On Monday, Yoeun Sin, president for the Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights Association, said local authorities threw the group out of the Samaki Rainsey pagoda in Meanchey district, Stung Meanchey commune, where most of them had been staying.
Kuch Chamroeun, Meanchey district governor, said Tuesday that the group was not ordered out of the pagoda.
“The local authorities…only went there to do a report on the number of men, women and children staying inside,” he said, adding that the group would be welcome to return if UNHCR and the monks approve.